Oct 08, 11
Read from September 26 to October 07, 2011
Mark Taylor opens the book by telling how he discovered he had two siblings who died before he knew them. That leads him to what he calls his "ghosts," philosophers and other modern figures who inspired and shaped his life. He traveled the world making rubbings of their graves, which led him to want to make a book of photographs "of the graves of cultural figures who created the modern world."
The text segues from the personal to a brief idiosyncratic history of cemeteries in the West. From there, it drifts into philosophy, where I thought it lost its originality and interest. Luckily, the text makes up less than a quarter of the book.
The rest of the book is filled with black & white photos of gravestones. Any collection of gravestone photos is going to reveal more about the collector than the dead. Grave Matters takes that generalization to an extreme. There is no biographical information about the names illustrated here. Some like Galileo and Thoreau need no introduction, but George Berkeley and Denis Diderot were completely unknown to me. The unfamiliar names equal or surpass the recognizable. As a reader, I felt excluded.
The photos range from beautifully shot and reproduced to some that are so dark that their stone faces are illegible. Sometimes the photographer (Dietrich Christian Lammerts) shot the grave monuments in context, which I appreciated, but those photos don't always appear in proximity. Beethoven's grave appears on page 64 and again on page 73. Perhaps that's an error of design, but it's weird. On the other hand, sometimes the gravestones are shot in such tight closeup that they're blurry, like Byron's. Benjamin Franklin's stone must have been shot through the fence, but it's cropped so tight that it's hard to read.
Other weird choices puzzled me. Gertrude Stein was buried in the grave in the photo labeled with her name, but the headstone in the picture reads Alice Toklas. The photograph was taken on the wrong side of the stone, instead of the side with Stein's name. The cenotaph to Mozart -- whose body went to an anonymous grave, but not in the cemetery where the marker stands -- is included without remark. Later, several different bodies of water appear; one is labeled "Fredrich Engels, 1820-1895. Eastborne, England" without any explanation. Were Engels's ashes scattered here? Did he drown? Jeremy Bentham's preserved body is the only time human remains appear. It's a shock to suddenly see a human face, albeit cast in wax. Text would have made those inclusions more understandable.
Still, the book shows an impressive breadth of travel, from American cemeteries to churchyards in England to graveyards in small villages in France, through Germany, Norway, and on into Russia to visit Chekhov. If only it included a table of contents or an index of the photos, so the dead would be easily to locate in the book than they must have been in real life.