Review: Stories in Stone, by Douglas Keister

Stories in Stone, by Douglas Keister
Stories in Stone, by Douglas Keister

A few weeks ago, in writing about doing photography in cemeteries, I mentioned Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography in passing. I debated elaborating upon the book itself as part of that post, but decided that this would take me a bit further off-topic than usual. It’s been nagging at me, though, so I decided to review the book on its own today.

To start with, this isn’t exactly something you’d sit down and read in one sitting. That’s not to say you couldn’t convceivably do just that (I did when I first bought it), but given that it’s more of an encyclopedic reference than a story told in narrative form, it’s not exactly bedtime reading. So if you purchase this sight unseen, at least you won’t be able to say I didn’t warn you.

The book is broken down into thematic sections. The first section provides a concise overview of funerary architecture and iconography, allowing the reader to trace the trends in, and evolution of, the design of your average memorial. The stones have become such a utilitarian affair nowadays that older markers, with their profusion of finely-wrought flora (ferns, weeping willows), fauna (lambs, lions, dogs) saints, people identified and unidentified, and a host of cherubim and angels, make the modern way of death… well, a pretty sad state by comparison. Beyond the simple vital statistics (name, dates of birth and death, a halfhearted heart or a bas-relief Jesus), a modern stone often doesn’t tell us much about the person buried beneath it. An older tombstone, on the other hand, could tell you the same facts as its modern equivalent, but also give clues about status, wealth, one’s affiliations and place in the community, and even a bit of his or her philosophy.

Wish You Were Here.

There’s also a listing of common acronyms for organizations, which comes in handy once you get past the handful, like the DAR and BPOE, that are household names. Finally, the book also contains a short bibliography if you’d like to explore further. One of the bonuses here is the photography; the author, besides writing the book, shot all his own photos, which are the perfect counterpoint to the text. There are also asides here on the grave sites of celebrities and commoners alike, often delivered with a sly sense of humor.

The title of this book doesn’t quite say it all, but it does manage to say quite a bit. There are stories to be seen in the tombstones of your local graveyard, if you’re willing to seek them out and learn how to read them. If you’re serious about cemetery photography beyond just image-making — if, in other words, you’d like to learn something from the experience, and also be able to sight-read a cemetery in much the same way you can with art or architecture — this is an indispensible tool to have. If there are, as the author suggests, stories in the stone, and you’re willing to seek them out, this is a good first step toward decoding them; a Rosetta stone for the stones, if you will.

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