Angel

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I like cemeteries.

I know that some people find that morbid or eccentric. I can assure you it’s not because I am a death-obsessed goth or an occultist. I like them because they are beautiful. And not even in the American-Beauty-bag-floating-in-the-breeze kind of way (although I think they are beautiful in that way too), but because they are beautiful in a very conventional way that no one would find morbid or eccentric in another setting–they are basically large gardens, with manicured lawns and flowers and trees and squirrels collecting acorns. They are filled with monuments and sculpture and statuary and architecture. These are all things that most anyone would find beautiful.

They just also happen to be filled with corpses. Corpses, I should point out, that people have taken great pains not to see; they are buried under layers of stone and dirt and concrete and steel and cloth. The fact that there happens to be dead bodies under the great lawns doesn’t detract from the beauty, it adds to it. Every place that a person is buried adds another monument, another bouquet of flowers. If you weren’t familiar with the fact that these places are graveyards, you’d think they were just parks; and originally that’s what they were.

I always preface telling people about my love of cemeteries by saying that I realize most people find it strange, because although I have no shame in it, I want people to know I understand social convention. People generally don’t react negatively to this, but at the same time, they don’t have any interest in it themselves. Most people I encounter aren’t actively afraid of cemeteries, except perhaps young children or the extremely superstitious. Your average rational person doesn’t think that they will encounter ghosts there. But they also don’t go to cemeteries much, except for certain specific events—a funeral, Memorial Day, perhaps to visit the grave of a loved one on their birthday or some other yearly occasion. These tend to be mournful events, and so people think of cemeteries as sad places. They certainly aren’t joyful, but they aren’t definitively sad either, and I don’t feel out of place enjoying my time there.

When I had more free time, I would spend several hours at cemeteries, often taking trips specifically to visit ones I had not been to. When I would visit a new city or town I would seek out its graveyard—every town has one, most have several. Sometimes there are cemeteries that don’t even have a town, because even the rural need to bury their dead. When I would be out driving, I would take note of every churchyard and tiny, roadside field of grass and stone fenced in with wrought-iron gates and weathered arches. And the one thing I would always bring with me when I came back to visit was my camera.

I have hundreds—literally hundreds—of photos of graves and monuments. I would spend hours in a cemetery, walking up and down the paths and in and out of rows of stones and markers, and whenever I found something I thought was beautiful (or sad, or funny, or majestic, or strange, or historic) I would take photos of it to try and capture the beauty and take it with me. Usually I did this alone, because it is difficult to convince other people to go with me. Like I said, people don’t discourage me from going; they just don’t want to go themselves. I have found some who are accommodating, and have accompanied me, including my wife, who was there when I took this photo. But I can and have spent all day in graveyards without getting bored. Even my wife, who is very understanding and supportive, couldn’t keep interested for that long. It seems I never run out of things that I find interesting in these places.

This photo was taken on an outing one fall that my wife and I took to Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, a wonderfully large and grand graveyard that is the resting place for both the average, blue-collar families that make Milwaukee what it is and the historical figures that make Milwaukee famous. We went there on a beautiful day as a reward to me.

In general, I will admit that I have never been the biggest fan of Milwaukee as a whole–although there are specific places there that I am a great fan of (Forest Home Cemetery being one of them)—I generally prefer Madison. My wife is a native of the greater Milwaukee area, and there was a time we hadn’t been married long that I think she missed the city, and the friends and family she had there. As a result of that, she would often want to go there on weekends to visit for one reason or another; Madison to Milwaukee isn’t much of a drive, so it wasn’t a big deal to go there and stay with her parents for the weekend. But for a while it seemed like every weekend we were going there, and we would leave Friday night or early Saturday and not get home until late Sunday. I was getting tired of spending most of my weekends there and started suggesting she go visit on her own so I could just spend time at home. As a way to try to entice me along, she began promising me that we would do things that I wanted to do while we were there.

We would plan in visits to the art museum, or the public museum, or some other cultural institution to justify leaving home. And on one of these trips, I wanted to go visit cemeteries. So in return for me spending the weekend with her and her family and friends in Milwaukee, she agreed to come with me to stroll and photograph Milwaukee cemeteries.

It was exactly the kind of fall day that I love for this kind of outing; the trees were in full color, and the air was just cold enough to remind you where you were. Forest Home covers a lot of ground; there are hills and ponds, and like most graveyards, the blissful stillness that you can’t find in just any city park. It’s a calm and somber oasis in the middle of a huge industrial metropolis. The variety of monuments is impressive too. Of course, in a cemetery, religious themes dominate the landscape, but not far from the entrance, atop a hill and under a tree, we came upon this beautiful, imposing bronze angel unlike any other I have seen.

Cold, somber, gray stone angels are not hard to find in graveyards. Usually you find them standing, arms open, or kneeling, hands folded in prayer. But this one catches your attention right away; she’s so dynamic, gesturing toward heaven while looking downward at you, palm down, foot reaching forward in mid-step. Perhaps she is just descending, about to land. The flowing folds of her gown and broad feathers of her outstretched wings are variegated with the dark black and bright turquoise patina of weathered bronze. The way that the rain has found natural paths down the form have left traces of oxidation; the most noticeable of these (although somewhat difficult to see in the picture) are two bright green lines that run down her forehead to the tip of her nose on her otherwise dark face. The V that it creates combined with the dynamic pose almost echoes the crescent of Artemis.

I don’t remember whose resting place this angel is standing watch over, but I certainly remember her. There is an irony there, since grave markers are put in place as a way for the living to remember the dead, and undoubtedly the family that she guards chose her in an attempt to be memorialized in death. I like to think in remembering this angel, I’m not memorializing any one person’s death or death at all. The dead, after all, have no use for monuments; they have no need for anything any longer. Cemeteries are for the living.

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e·mul·sion

(ĭ-mŭl'shən)

n.
  1. A suspension of small globules of one liquid in a second liquid with which the first will not mix: an emulsion of oil in vinegar.
  2. A photosensitive coating, usually of silver halide grains in a thin gelatin layer, on photographic film, paper, or glass.
[New Latin ēmulsiō, ēmulsiōn-, from Latin ēmulsus, past participle of ēmulgēre, to milk out : ē-, ex-, ex- + mulgēre, to milk; see melg- in Indo-European roots.]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition