Graceland is perhaps the crown jewel of midwestern cemeteries, numbering among its tenants many of Chicago's rich and famous, some of whom were commemorated by artists as well known as Lorado Taft and Louis Sullivan.
But John Gary Brown, a photographer based in Lawrence, Kansas, has little interest in the famous, either as artists or subjects. His book Soul in the Stone: Cemetery Art From America's Heartland focuses on the folk traditions of funerary art, celebrating an artistic pluralism that he claims is unique to the midwest. Brown's black-and-white photos, taken in cemeteries throughout a ten-state region, reveal various ethnic traditions that were later shaped by the prevailing artistic influences and economic realities of the new land. The wrought-iron crosses popular in Bavaria and Austria, for example, find their U.S. counterpart in more affordable crosses wrought of plumbing pipe.
While many monuments feature religious imagery and epitaphs that graphically portray the hope of an afterlife, Brown also dwells on the idiosyncratic American tradition of celebrating the life of the deceased. The first commissioner of the National League, W.A. Hulbert, is commemorated at Graceland by a simple oversized baseball. George S. Bangs, a railroad man who developed the first mail car, has an elaborate marker in Rosehill Cemetery that includes a train entering a tunnel and a decayed tree bearing the out-of-date inscription: "His crowning effort--the fast mail."
Brown reports that air pollution and harsh weather are eating away at many such baroque monuments, carved of soft limestone or marble in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's ironic that his book may prove to be a more enduring memorial than these artworks that are themselves a sort of stab at immortality. Soul in the Stone: Cemetery Art From America's Heartland is published by the University Press of Kansas and is available in bookstores for $39.95.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Gary Brown.