Foreword to Guardians of the Soul (copyright Claude Cookman 2004)
A vivid image from a story read in my youth hovers in my memory. Although I can no longer recall the title or author, one passage persists: In the afterlife, a man gazes down upon a field of stars. Little by little, they twinkle and burn out. Over time they grow scarce and, eventually, the last one disappears. The narrator explains that the stars were people who had known the deceased during his life. As each of them dies, his or her star is extinguished until finally the man's sky is impenetrably black-all memories of him have been erased from the world of the living.
The story evokes two intertwined threads of humanity's response to death: our desire for eternal life in another sphere and our desire to leave a lasting trace of our existence in this world. We can only imagine at what point in the human trajectory the second longing surfaced, but eventually, rude markers began to be erected as locators of burial sites and as memorials for the people interred there. By the era of the pharaohs, both desires were accommodated: elaborate embalming to preserve the individual for eternity and massive pyramids to proclaim his majesty to future generations.
What the richest and most powerful enjoyed was, naturally, coveted by those further down the social ladder. For those who could not command a pyramid in their honor-nobles, court officials and chief scribes-there was little choice but to settle for smaller, flat-roofed mastabas. Centuries later, in western cultures, the same hierarchical approach to memorials persisted. In England, kings, queens, great knights, and ladies were interred above ground in cathedrals with life-sized marble sculptures atop their stone vaults. Women and men of the humble classes were buried in the church cemetery with little more than a cross to testify to their days on earth.
In the mid 1700s, the British poet Thomas Gray meditated on this state of affairs in his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." In it, he celebrated the lives and talents of anonymous country folk. For him, the modest inscriptions and humble sculptures served to memorialize their lives. They were reminders that, in Gray's most famous line, "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." Whether a passerby knew the deceased or not, the wellsprings of feeling were enough to prompt "the passing tribute of a sigh" for a fellow human being.
As a latter-day Thomas Gray, John Bower has wandered the country graveyards of Southern Indiana and offers us, in this book, a photographic meditation on the human response to death. Dorothea Lange, the great documentarian, once said, "The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." Surely, Bower's work proves her point. Perhaps because of our modern culture's discomfort with the idea of death, perhaps because of a preoccupation with the graves of our own loved ones, few of us have invested the time to look intently at this cemetery art.
John Bower has done that for us. With a clear eye and pure technique, he has studied hundreds of cemetery statues. With angle, framing, depth of field, and camera distance, he isolates each one, showing us what makes it unique. Here, an angel framed against a cloudy sky inscribes a name in the Book of Life. Over there, a Saint Christopher-like fire fighter carries a cherubic infant. In another corner, lies a prostrate lion, his massive head weighted down with grief. Towering on his pedestal, Saint Michael-curiously missing his sword-bestrides the vanquished dragon. And what shall we say of the girl who died on the cusp of womanhood? Her fine features, long braided hair, ankle-top shoes, and bouquet of flowers reveal her character. But the most telling detail is her left knee, slightly bent as if ready to take the next step forward.
These statues tell us much about the people who erected them. Some, no doubt, were commissioned by the subjects themselves before their deaths. Most were probably erected by loved ones to memorialize a parent or child. All of them testify to the human struggle against oblivion. Against that pitch-black, starless sky they shout, "I was here. I did live a life. I knew joy and struggle, heartache and accomplishment. I deserve to be remembered."
Beyond the deceased and their loved ones, a third group of people is present in this book. These photographs witness the proud and loving craft of the stone cutters and bronze fabricators who fashioned the sculptures. Bower's photographic craft is a fitting tribute to the work of these artisans.
For me the most poignant of these images shows a seated boy, gazing slightly upward. The real child suffered an early death; his stone effigy suffers a prolonged demise. The left hand is missing. The jacket and trousers are dotted with clumps of moss. A leprous weathering has eroded the stone until the eyes and lips recede into the face. Notwithstanding this deterioration, the statue conveys a strong sense of life. I can feel the boy it represents. Despite his fancy bow tie, ruffled shirt and serious demeanor, I know he was a real boy, who, like Booth Tarkington's Penrod, ran and joked and played throughout his few short years. With Thomas Gray, I look at this statue and sigh for a life lost too soon. With John Bower, I look at all these obituaries in stone and bronze and celebrate the human spirit that produced them.
I will never see cemeteries the same way again.