Stories, Love and Teacups: Why I Photograph in Cemeteries

Photos © Paul Cotter Photography

Some people might find it depressing or downright macabre to sit in a graveyard with a camera -- especially when it's dark and you're all alone. But for more than a decade, I've been building an archive of photographs I've taken in old cemeteries across the United States and Europe. Let me tell you why.

Since the dawn of human history, our burial grounds have revealed our secrets -- who we are, how we live, what we hold sacred. Cemeteries can be as rich in narrative as any movie or novel, and they can be as captivating visually as any scenic vista. And most importantly:  While graveyards are deeply rooted in death, they have much to teach us about life.


The Stories are Everywhere

If you want a good story, just kneel and read an epitaph carved in stone.

In the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague (shown in the last photo above), you'll see a dense jumble of gravestones dating back to 1439. Over the next 300 years, bodies were buried in stacked layers because the cemetery was so small. An old tilting gravestone could commemorate a famous Jewish citizen buried 12 layers down.

In the Old Settlers' Cemetery in Charlotte NC, you'll see the graves of settlers who came from England in the 1700s ... Confederate soldiers who were killed in battle ... infants who died shortly after birth, a tragedy which was all too common in centuries past.

Life Lesson #1: Death is the Great Equalizer

In an old cemetery in Martinez CA, I was struck by the diverse collection of burial arrangements -- from imposing family mausoleums to humble grave markers like the wooden crosses shown below. The deceased in this cemetery came from vastly different social backgrounds, but every one of the bodies is buried in the same dirt.

For me, this is a poignant reminder that in the end, our wealth and possessions are meaningless. Our social status does not define us, and it does not elevate us above anyone. In the end, our lives are defined by the way we lived.

Life Lesson #2: Love Never Dies

In every graveyard I've visited, I've been stirred by the tender testaments of love. Sometimes that love is shown in the words engraved on a headstone. And sometimes it's evident in the placement of graves side by side -- as in the photo below, where two headstones look out over a bay in Northern California. It's as if the husband and wife are holding hands in two lawn chairs, resting comfortably together for eternity.

Life Lesson #3: Remember the Teacup

And this brings us to the most precious thing we'll find in a cemetery -- the opportunity to look our own mortality squarely in the eye.  This is something we often avoid, because daily living encourages us to sweep thoughts about death under a thick rug of denial.

Some cultures around the world embrace a healthier relationship with death. I've read that Tibetan Buddhists will turn their teacups over each night before bedtime -- a simple acknowledgment that death can come at any time and we may not live to see the morning.

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche wrote, “Reflecting on impermanence is not a means to make us miserable. But without the sorrow of knowing nothing will last, we will never get anywhere on our path.”

When I bring my camera to a cemetery, I'm looking for interesting pictures -- and the opportunity to move a few steps forward on the path.

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~ Paul