St. Raymond's Portraits

St. Raymond's Portraits

I've talked about ceramic cemetery portraiture before—at St. Michael's and Bideawee Pet Cemetery— and some of the best I've seen yet was at St. Raymond's cemetery in the Bronx. I went to St. Raymond's last October searching for the final resting place of Mary Mallon (aka Typhoid Mary), and because I had such a hard time finding her, I saw a lot along the way. 

For the most part, I'm able to explore cemeteries without thinking too deeply about the actual people buried beneath my feet. I don't mean this to sound callous, but cemeteries can be intensely sad and dark places—I'd never make it though one if I stopped to mourn every individual life. I also tend to avoid newer graves since older ones interest me more, aesthetically and historically, and time helps to further sever any connection I would feel to the deceased. Ceramic portraits, however, make it impossible for me to view with detachment. 

I noticed that St. Raymond's had a large number of ceramic portraits, and I wonder what it is about a cemetery that determines that—St. Raymond's is a Roman Catholic cemetery, while St. Michael's is open to all faiths. Most of these portraits date from the early 1900s—the height of their popularity—when photography was still expensive and labor intensive. A lot of the photos show people in their happiest moments, in the prime of their life or during a celebratory occasion. Wedding photos are pretty common, especially for women who are frequently referred to on their headstones by their relationship to the men in their lives (mother, sister, wife).

Something the graphic designer in me hadn't noticed until St. Raymond's, is the composite portrait. Before computers and photoshop, people still had a need to combine two or more photographs into one. Some of them are more convincing than others, but at the time it must have been a pretty neat trick. Maybe, in a prior life, I worked as a ceramic portraiture "photoshop" artist?

The most unnerving portraits are the ones of children. Everyone who has ever seen a horror movie (or met a real, live child) know that children are creepy. They seem to see and know things that we don't, and have senses that we lose as we grow and gain rational thought. Post-mortem photography was so popular, especially with children, in this era because sometimes that would be the only photograph a family had of a child. A lot of these photos show kids just being kids—in a soapbox car, holding a puppy, reading—but I did find at least one obviously taken post-mortem, and it's definitely one of the most memorable and objectively creepy things I've seen in my cemetery explorations thus far. 

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