I didn’t always obsessively photograph cemeteries.
The story of how I got to here – a husband, father of a toddler, and a teacher whose free time has ebbed much more than it has flowed over the past few years – is a long and rather boring one, but it serves as a decent introduction to this blog.
I have always been a history nerd, though my path in history has never been a straight one – from specializing in East European and Balkan nationalism studies in college, to African history in grad school, and now finally in US history as a high school teacher, I’ve never exactly specialized the way academic history tends to want one to do. There have been, however, common threads in my reading, writing, and thinking. One of them – maybe, if pressed, the biggest – is the question of how we remember history; how we, in many ways, live within it, even if we know nothing about it. I’ve always loved memorials and museums, as well as the controversies and disagreements they so often engender.
Add to that lifelong interest a more recent one – photography – and you have the makings of a remarkably nerdy hobby: visiting and photographing historical sites, memorials, and (recently) especially graves.
The ‘project’ phase of my photography began with a trip to the American Southwest with my wife, also a history teacher. On that trip, without really planning to, we visited three different state capitol buildings: Santa Fe, New Mexico; Denver, Colorado; and Cheyenne, Wyoming. After we returned, I started thinking about these buildings, and how each attempts to present a story about its state’s history and identity. I began to investigate these buildings, and developed a photographic challenge for myself: visit and photograph all 50 capitol buildings in the United States, with a special eye toward that tendency to mythologize and retell. To date, I’ve managed 24 capitols.
On a trip to the Tennessee capitol in Nashville, I visited the graves of both Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, and decided that Presidential gravesites would be an interesting challenge as well; I’m now up to 22 of those. Vice Presidential graves followed, as did Supreme Court Justices, Speakers of the House, and Secretaries of State.
But, life changes plans. My son Henry was born not too long after this mission started, and gallavanting around the country tends to become a bit harder with an infant or a toddler around. So, I started to think close to home as well; city and town halls in Massachusetts, as well as the graves of Massachusetts Governors and Senators. I began getting into some actual research to try and track down undocumented graves (with a little bit of success!).
Even as I did that, however, I kept running across interesting graves that were on none of my lists – graves of incredibly influential or interesting people who simply had the good sense to never run for office. So, over the course of some time recently, I sat down and began to draw up a list – as comprehensive as I could manage – of all of the influential Americans I could find. Using trusty sources (most notably findagrave.com) I located their graves. That list grew… and grew, and grew, and grew. It now sits at over 500 names – politicians, activists, scientists, writers, musicians, soldiers and many others. Now, no matter where I am in the country or state, I likely have somewhere I can visit, photograph, and learn from.
So, the goal of this blog is to tell the stories of as many of these people as I can, as well as some thoughts on how we remember them, and how we remember in general. Not every post will be about graves, but a lot of them will. There will always be photos. It’ll probably bore the living hell out of 99.99% of the populace. But, for the other .01% of you, welcome and enjoy!