(if you’ve come here to tell me that what I’m doing is rude, disrespectful, weird, etc. please first go watch the Pixar movie Coco or do some research on Día de los Muetros.)
the first cemetery experience that I can remember is walking around Bayside Cemetery in Sturgeon Bay with my grandma when I was little. she told me that she walked around there because there weren’t any cars. I probably thought it was a little creepy at first, but it does make sense.
many years later, in October of 2015, I took my first photo at a cemetery. I had either missed my turn or decided to go to a shop in Egg Harbor after I drove past it, and I turned around in the cemetery across the highway. the leaves on the trees and ground were orange and yellow, and I thought that the very old headstones made for a nice photo. I felt weird about posting it on instagram, but I did it anyway.
I took some more cemetery photos on Halloween 2016 in Bayside Cemetery, but it was almost two years later that I signed up for Find a Grave after a blogger that I follow mentioned it. “At Find a Grave you’ll find details about cemeteries and individual memorials for many people buried in those cemeteries. Memorials generally include birth, death and burial information and may include pictures, biographies, family information and more. Members can contribute what they know and can leave remembrances via 'virtual flowers' on the memorials they visit, completing the virtual cemetery experience.”
on my early solo walks through cemeteries, I was mostly taking photos of gravestones that I thought were interesting because they were so old and had cool fonts, or because they featured a statue of an angel or the Virgin Mary. those are still my favorites to photograph. I also enjoy reading the names, and a fun discovery has been so many couples named Joseph and Josephine, or William and Wilhelmina, or just two names that were so similar to one another.
so once I take the photos and then run them through Lightroom, I pull up Find a Grave and find the cemetery and then the memorials and start adding photos. sometimes I fulfill requests, but I don’t claim requests if I don’t know how to locate them in the cemetery. I have been able to fulfill some simply by randomly coming across them, and I do often check the app while I’m in the cemetery to see if there are any people I can assist.
Find a Grave is open source, so it’s just a bunch of users working together to help record all of these memorials. because of this, I’ve also been adding memorials to the website. I always try to look for obituaries and try to connect them to family memorials on the website, and through that, I have found some resources to help me fill in some gaps. unfortunately, there’s a big gap and I don’t know how to fill in a lot of them, but there are so many other great people working together to help add information. it makes me smile to see the same names throughout Find a Grave who are adding newspaper clippings and additional information. I enjoy getting to read these clippings and learning more about the people whose graves I have visited.
over the past couple months, I managed to photograph an entire cemetery in my area that was missing a lot of photographs, and I’ve been working my way through another one and have added many memorials there too. I always enjoy getting to connect family members to each other. recently I added some memorials in Baileys Harbor and another member on Find a Grave came across them just the next day and I was so excited because they were somehow related to him. I actually added some of my great-grandparents to the website and was able to go back a few generations and see where my great-great-grandparents are buried in Illinois and Ohio.
q: you have a series of photos taken through the years of an abandoned house in Door County. do you have any gravestones that you return to to take photos of over the years as well?
a: not really. there are a few angels that I have multiple photos of, but I wouldn’t consider them to be series.
q: how many cemeteries have you visited?
a: I don’t have an exact answer, but I would guess two or three dozen. most of the ones I’ve been to are in northeastern Wisconsin, but I have also visited several in the Milwaukee area, a couple in Montreal, and one in Vermont. I also rode by (in a bus and on a horse, ha!) a few in Ecuador, and they were beautiful.
q: what’s your favorite cemetery?
a: I don’t have one favorite. however, there are a couple large cemeteries that I’ve been to in Montreal and Milwaukee that I want to go back to because I haven’t had enough time to explore them. the Milwaukee brewing Best, Blatz, Pabst, and Schlitz families are all buried at Forest Home, and there are so many peonies at Saint Adalberts in the summer. if I have to narrow down between a few cemeteries to visit, I’ll usually go for a Catholic one because I think that they’re more likely to have angel and Virgin Mary statues.
q: do you ever feel creeped out walking around these cemeteries?
a: not really. I do sometimes still wonder if people driving by (or the few other people who might happen to be on the other cemetery) are judging me for walking around with a camera, but I know that I am not hurting anyone and in fact helping to piece things together for others.
(though reading obituaries/newspaper articles about some of these people has made me sad.)
q: how do you find cemeteries to visit?
a: Find a Grave app, Google Maps, just driving around. I have added a few to my “want to go” list on Google Maps that I hope to visit someday!
q: what do you listen to while you’re out in cemeteries?
a: the same things I usually listen to: audiobooks on Audible (lots of Harry Potter), podcasts (lots of true crime), or music (Taylor Swift, Death Cab for Cutie, The Lumineers, The Head and the Heart, Geri X, etc.)
if you are planning on visiting a cemetery, please remember to be respectful. don’t litter. follow the posted rules. not all cemeteries allow dogs, because cemeteries are not parks. there are people there to mourn their loved ones, and they deserve respect and space.
happy wandering. be safe out there.
a photographer with the desire to hide behind the camera a little less and let the light shine through.