Introduction to Guardians of the Soul

There was a time in America when people decorated the graves of loved ones with beautiful statues. This Age roughly coincided with the period between two major milestones in our country's history—the Civil War and the Great Depression. During these half-dozen decades, a stone-carving industry flourished, both in this country and abroad. And the quality of the statuary created was exceptional. There were angels, in all sizes, as well as statues of adults and children which were sometimes stylized, sometimes perfect likenesses. These monuments could be pricey, with the larger ones costing as much as a modest house. But, if you could afford it, statues were fashionable.

Until recently, I had no idea just how much of this sculpture existed in cemeteries. Then, as I was photographing Southern Indiana for my book, Lingering Spirit, I began visiting more and more Hoosier graveyards—and I started discovering so much extraordinary statuary, and I was so impressed, that I knew it needed to be seen and appreciated by more than the occasional cemetery visitor. I'd already come across books filled with photos of sculpture from the world's most famous cemeteries, but I was finding scores of equally enchanting stone carvings here in the Midwest—as well as unexpected castings, superbly crafted in bronze and zinc.

The more I looked at these statues, the more I began to sense that they had a significance beyond being elaborate decorations. They were something very special a survivor could do, something more than a marker, a remembrance, or a memorial. In fact, I got the impression that they existed to watch over, or accompany, the departed souls, as attendants, as protectors—as guardians.

At first, I planned to photograph in cemeteries throughout the entire State of Indiana but, once I got started, I realized how many memorable statues there were. While they only resided in a minority of cemeteries, there seemed to be far too many for a single book. So I decided to concentrate on half the state, and U.S Highway 40 (the old National Road) seemed like a perfect dividing line. So, Guardians of the Soul covers all of Indiana south of that historic highway, an area that includes all, or part, of 48 out of Indiana's 92 counties. Because I live in Bloomington, this is my own backyard

As I've been working on this project, I've had people tell me that cemeteries make them uncomfortable. To which I reply that cemeteries certainly evoke thoughts of death—but they are also places we can go to quietly remember all the pleasant memories of the friends and relatives who have gone before. And, even though we don't like to dwell on our own mortality, death is our most basic fact of life—a passage of such magnitude and mystery, of such finality and inevitability, that cultures feel compelled to mark it with some type of ritual. Cemeteries are an important part of that ritual

Although many of today's cemeteries have a serene and calming, park-like atmosphere, the concept of a spacious, attractive, landscaped burial ground is only 200 years old, with the first—Père Lachaise—being established in Paris, France in 1804. Previously, Christian cemeteries (particularly in Europe) tended to be morbid, gothic places of loathsomeness and fear, with terrifying images of death and Hell. But the concept behind Père Lachaise was completely different. Instead of being run by the Church, it was a secular, municipal concern, designed with rolling hills, winding lanes, and plenty of trees. Because the plots could be purchased by individual families, permanent monuments, dedicated to the memory of fathers, mothers, and children, were soon being erected. There was no longer the likelihood that others would be buried on top of your deceased relatives, or that a church official would disallow a particular monument's design. With this new freedom, people with sufficient financial resources began contracting for large and elaborate monuments, memorials, and tombs. The skills of sculptors and journeymen stone carvers were employed in the creation of majestic angels, mourning women, fallen doves, innocent children, and much more.

Understandably, the general public, particularly the middle classes, quickly embraced these new garden cemeteries, and they were soon established all over Europe. In an era when public parks were still few and far between, cemeteries became popular open-air places to congregate. People began picnicking, having secret meetings—even making love—in them. By the 1860s, there were 70,000 people a week visiting Paris' major garden cemeteries.

In the United States, by the mid-1850s, garden cemeteries began to be established across the continent. At first, they were popular recreational destinations—just like those in Europe—but, by the turn of the 20th Century, Americans began finding other places to draw their attention. Still, today, you can occasionally spot a few people on a sunny afternoon meandering among the tombstones of an American garden cemetery, or playing catch with their dog, or pushing a baby carriage, or jogging, or simply driving down the quiet, winding, asphalted drives.

Personally, I rather enjoy visiting cemeteries—but not the ones filled with simple, flat, ground-level stones, nor the ones with the subdivision-like regularity of standard granite monuments. I prefer cemeteries that contain older, distinctive, elaborate grave markers and statuary. I don't find them particularly sad places. Instead, I sense in them the deep love the still-living have for those who've passed on. So, when I see a magnificent winged angel, hand-carved in white marble, I consider how much a father, mother, or child cared for their lost loved one. After all, you don't erect a beautiful statue for a lecherous uncle, a mean-spirited parent, or an adulterous husband. You only commission an expensive sculpture for someone who was very special to you—an innocent daughter, a caring relative, a soul mate. And these relationships have a timeless quality—an abiding love that transcends death.

As I walk through these cemeteries, stopping, looking, and touching the weathered monuments, I find them perfect places for relaxation and contemplation. Because of all the artwork, statues, bas-reliefs, etc, I see cemeteries as nothing less than outdoor museums. In fact, I will go so far as to say they constitute a national treasure. Although the individual sculptors are rarely known by name, their work is often spectacular. Some of the statuary was created overseas, but much of America's cemetery sculpture was carved by talented local craftsmen.

Unfortunately, outside of cemeteries, the United States simply doesn't have a significant tradition of public sculpture. Yes, many municipal buildings have classically-inspired figures on their pediments, the lawns of courthouses often have "Lest we forget" monuments to those who served in various wars, and there is the occasional statue of an important local historical figure, but it is in older cemeteries where you regularly find the most captivating sculpture—often in abundance. And while some of these monuments are dedicated to wealthy, influential citizens, they are also erected in the memory of people who were important only to a handful of friends and relatives.

The beauty of the statuary found in graveyards routinely draws photographers and tourists to the larger, better-known cemeteries—Père Lachaise, Montparnasse, and Montmartre, all in Paris; or Metairie in New Orleans; or Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Because of this, there are guidebooks to these, and most other, major "cities of the dead." But there is much, much, more outstanding cemetery sculpture to be found—often in your own neighborhood. For example, it isn't unusual to find nearly 100 statues in a single large Midwestern city cemetery—if it was established in the 19th century. But I've also been delighted to discover a single charming statue in a tiny, small-town or country cemetery. Anyone can admire these works of art—all you need do is locate an older cemetery and walk or drive thorough the front gate.

Having visited dozens and dozens of cemeteries, I've discovered countless angels, cherubs, young children, and grieving women carved in stone or cast in metal. Some of the statues are very similar, although particular features may differ slightly. And there are certain predictable motifs—the outstretched hand, the beatific look skyward, the innocent expression of a child. But there are also many one-of-a-kind statues. Most are meticulously crafted, with fine details, correct proportions, and balanced design. But, sadly, for many, the beauty is slowly vanishing.

The fact is, the delicate quality of our cemetery statues is fading—for a variety of reasons. Vandalism can certainly be a problem in some areas—monuments being damaged and toppled for the thrill of it, statues being stolen, bases chipped by lawnmowers. But, as bad as wanton or accidental desecration can be, the real damage to these irreplaceable works of art is time. Those of marble and limestone, are slowly eroding away due to natural weathering—and this is dramatically speeding up due to the effects of acid rain. Then, too, lichens and mosses damage surfaces, and vines and roots strangle bases causing them to lean precariously. Only those monuments that were carved in much-harder granite will last for centuries—but those statues are in the minority because granite is more difficult and, therefore, more costly, to chisel.

Because of the expense, the scarcity of skilled stone sculptors, modern cemetery regulations, as well as current tastes and practices, newly created cemetery statues are very rare indeed. Sadly, the carving of sculpture to honor the dead has almost become passé. But, as with much of our history, it is an art that needs to be recognized and documented. And that has been my goal in creating Guardians of the Soul.

John Bower