A Book Review

John Gary Brown, Brownie, and I met thirty years ago in Colorado. This was back in my acting days. Brownie was the photographer for Creede Repertory Theater where I’d landed the ingénue roles that summer.

He’s the first person I ever met who shared my love of cemeteries. When I sheepishly admitted to my grave addiction on a hike up West Willow Canyon with most of the acting company, the others looked at me like I’d grown an extra nose, Brownie’s eyes lit up. “Me too,” he said, “I’m thinking about writing a book.”

Brownie outside his studio

 

Fourteen years later, Soul in the Stone: Cemetery Art from America’s Heartland was published by the University Press of Kansas. 

Both in photography and words, Brownie articulates everything I love about wandering through graveyards. But, where I look at stones and wonder about their history, Brownie goes out and finds the stories. I’m not talking genealogy. He’s an artist – one of my ambitions in life is to own a Brownie painting.

He tells the real human story, the wealth, poverty, culture, history, often weird and funny tales that give each monument its unique significance. He sees the artist or artisan’s point of view too and reveals things about techniques, styles and types of stone that I’d never think of.

I love that.

His photos truly evoke the soul in each stone. I wish I could give you a few samples, but I didn’t want to infringe on Brownie’s copy rights. You’ll just have to go to your library or book store and order the book.

Use it as a travel guide. I guarantee Brownie will lead you to sites Michelin and Frommer never could. As he says in his introduction,

I wish to introduce the reader to a fairly comprehensive sampling of monuments, found and photographed in the course of travel and exploration… Artistic expression and the role of the cemetery in the history of art are especially emphasized in the choice of material.  I hope that this book will encourage others to explore, enjoy and perhaps document outstanding Heartland cemeteries.

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Cemetery Musings

I’ll tell you about my first real funeral.

I was little, seven or eight. My great grandma Essie passed away.

Essie lived the last decade or so of her life in a corner of Colorado where the flat plains were sown with wheat fields stretching as far as the eye could see. The Rocky Mountains didn’t even smudge the western horizon.

Julesburg is so small you could ride a bike across town in the time it takes to sing three verses of the Star Spangled Banner.

I don’t remember the service itself except that it happened in a little church within a block of my grandmother’s house on a gorgeous spring day.

 

Afterwards, I walked down the sidewalk with my sisters and parents, and I started to cry. The sun was a warm kiss against my skin. A cool, silky breeze soothed away its heat. Birds sang. The scent of lilacs wafted on the air.

It broke my heart.

Great Grandma Essie would never experience any of this again.

I started a list in my head of all the other wonderful things she’d miss: Christmas morning, Humming Birds, me…. I cried harder.

I remember sitting on the edge of the bed in my grandmother’s pink guest room, still crying, Mom sitting beside me.

Despite weekly Sunday school classes, I had no concept of a place Grandma Essie could go that could possibly be better than this. Wouldn’t she miss us? Wouldn’t she be all alone? I don’t envy my mom that day. Though I don’t remember her words, I recall a sense of mild desperation in the arm she wrapped around me.

Part of my distress was the idea that not everyone got to go to that wonderful place called heaven that Mom and Sunday school tried to describe. My teachers didn’t preach hell and brimstone, not to kids my age, but you hang around at church long enough and even seven-year-olds hear rumors.

At 92, Great Grandma Essie was a grumpy, old woman. She’d had a hard life, been abandoned by two husbands, raised two children alone on a farm in the Midwest in the days before electricity and cars and Zoloft. She’d sent both of her kids, daughter and son, to college.  She was a tough, old broad. To me, she’d always been a slightly scary, very fragile, old lady who wore sagging stockings and slept in her rocking chair when we visited. She died in her sleep, alone, in a gloomy, cramped apartment that smelled funny. Would she make it to heaven?

“Of course,” my mother said, gently squeezing my shoulder as I sobbed.

“But, how do you know?”

That’s the question, isn’t it?