Death's Garden Excerpts

Death's Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries


From "Epitaph," by Loren Rhoads

This book would not exist without Blair Apperson.

I've been photographing gravestones since 1980, collecting images of cemeteries from Michigan to France, California to England, Massachusetts to Japan. Photographing graveyards taught me that one need not become famous in life -- funerary sculpture could bring fame that might last longer than life itself had. The famous can be neglected, as evidenced by the disarray in London's Highgate Cemetery. Nothing lasts forever; even stone corrodes in the centuries of winter. Death may be eternal, but memory is not. The dead outnumber the living, but art has a life all its own. Art alone can attain immortality.
As I collected photographs, I sent the best of them to Mart Allard, my oldest friend. She gathered the pictures into albums. We flipped through the pages together, marveling at the beauty death could gather around it: angels and muses, stone flowers, urns and willow trees and hourglasses, poetry, landscaping, peace.

Blair heard me say that someday I'd like to publish a collection of my photographs. He had taken hundreds of them himself, gathered over trips to Cabo San Lucas and Mono Lake, Yosemite and the Bahamas. He wanted to share the enjoyment that visiting all these cemeteries had given him.
I knew that if I accepted Blair's photos, my time schedule for the book would move from a nebulous "someday" to a very immediate "right now." Blair had been diagnosed with ARC in March 1994. If I agreed to do this project, I wanted to put the completed book in Blair's hands so he could admire his own work in print.
Unfortunately, AIDS works faster than art.

Years ago, a friend who worked as a stone-cutter engraved a block of black granite with Blair's name. When Blair and his husband bought a house in 1993, Blair put his "headstone" into the earth for the first time. He placed it in the garden among the succulents. It was an odd sensation, he said.

Eighteen months later, Blair's ashes reside in the pot of a Texan cactus, feeding the roots of the sort of plants he loved. Like me, Blair did not envision his body locked in a box, held down by a stone. He wanted to return to nature when he died. It's impossible to grieve at the foot of a cactus.

Blair's life was about life. He surrounded himself with the icons of death: skeletons, graveyard photos, animal bones. However, death did not define Blair. He was as idiosyncratic and original as they come.

I wish he could have seen this book. I think he would have liked it. It is as much a monument to his death as a celebration of his life, of the lives of all the artists and authors herein. Those of us living have a duty to life. May this memento mori spur us along.

"Even the death of friends will inspire us as much as their lives.... Their memories will be encrusted over with sublime and pleasing thoughts, as monuments of other men are overgrown with moss; for our friends have no place in the graveyard."
-- Henry David Thoreau

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