Monday, 8 April 2013

Angels in Havana - an interview with Sarah Bryan of Folk Funeraria

Photo: Angels in Havana by Sarah Bryan
Folklore is interwoven through the tapestry of the world, encompassing almost every part of everyone's lives. There's nowhere where folklore thrives more than through death. 

Sarah Bryan runs Folk Funeraria, a blog looking at grave decorations in the American south. I spoke to Sarah about her fascination with gravestones, folklore and history.

What inspired you to start taking pictures of tombstones and grave decorations?

Though I don’t remember precisely when or why I started taking pictures of gravestones, it was probably as a fairly young child, with my first camera. My mom was photographing tombstones long before that, so I’m sure it has to do with her influence. (My mom, whose academic training is as a medievalist, is a writer and historian of the American Civil War era. She’s a cofounder of Ancestry and Life Stories, which sells family tree kits for kids, including materials for making gravestone rubbings.) I grew up in South Carolina and Virginia, and whenever we would travel and had time to explore historic places, we’d visit the oldest graveyards we could find. It’s a great way to learn a lot about the culture of a place—its history, religious beliefs, ethnicities, aesthetics, language, genealogy—an awful lot is revealed about how people lived by the way their survivors memorialize them. Part of the appeal is the emotional connections one makes in an old graveyard to people who’ve been dead for many years. Most people who have spent time in old cemeteries know that pang of sympathetic grief one feels seeing two large tombstones next to a series of small stones decorated with carvings of lambs—a sign of parents who lost children. Here in the Southern US, one might visit a family burying ground on an antebellum plantation, admire the elaborate decoration and documentation on the landowners’ tombstones, and then realize that the graves of the slaves who worked their land, cooked their meals, tended their homes, and raised their children are only marked with rocks or plain wooden boards, if they’re marked at all. So the appeal begins with that inherent poignancy of remembering those who have gone before us, and how (and whether) they are memorialized.

Also, there is the aesthetic appeal of funerary art. A lot of people, myself included, really like Victorian graveyards, particularly the angel sculptures in their various attitudes of contemplative sorrow or triumphant jubilation. Here in North Carolina the most famous graveyard angel is in the foothills town of Hendersonville, a celestial woman with single-starred tiara, said to have inspired novelist Thomas Wolfe when he wrote “Look Homeward Angel.” The most beautiful and hair-raisingly vivid angels I’ve ever seen are in late-nineteenth-century cemeteries in Cuba. There’s a monument in Havana’s Cementerio Colon to eight medical students who were executed in 1871. Their angel is bursting out of a temple, and the overall effect is of a cuckoo clock announcing Judgment Day. Another one in Havana is crouched down with one hand to her ear and the other stretched out in the universal “hang on a second” gesture, as if she hears some sort of tumult brewing underground. Then there’s this Victorian cemetery in the southern Cuban town of Cienfuegos that is just stuffed to bursting with angels. It’s a Victorian taphophile’s fantasy.

Then of course there are the wonderful eighteenth- and very early nineteenth-century carvings for which New England churchyards are so well known, and which are to be found in old Southern port towns as well. The carvings on these stones often feature depraved death’s heads framed by sickles, or alarmed-looking angel faces with wings sprouting right out where their ears should be. Sometimes there are even portraits of the deceased. My favorite examples of portraiture in this style are found in Charleston, South Carolina, at Circular Congregational Church. They’re slightly cartoonish in a half-creepy but also quite endearing way that reminds me a lot of the medieval Lewis Chessmen.

Much as I love the Victoriana and the colonial and early post-Revolutionary tombstone art, my very favorite grave markers are often the most rudimentary. Whether carved with a chisel into a piece of sandstone two hundred years ago, or with a stick in wet concrete in the 1970s, the markers that appeal to me most are the homemade stones, inscribed with halting, eccentrically spaced, sometimes backwards letters, and vernacular spelling, and perhaps a bit of spare decoration like a simple flower or star. Markers like this were made by people who didn’t have the means to buy their loved ones elaborate, professionally made gravestones, so they made do with what they had, both in terms of materials and literacy. These to me are the most emotionally affecting, because they’re really the proverbial labors of love.
Do you think the type of grave decorations you encounter are more prevalent in the South? If so, why do you think that?

In some cases they are; in other cases they are to be found more widely, or, conversely, only very locally.  There is a lot about funerary art in the South that traces back to African cultures. The most classic example of African American grave decoration is broken crockery or other objects owned by the deceased. I very often see burial sites at which the deceased’s loved ones have left objects that belonged to him or her. I find it hard to tell whether broken objects left on graves were broken intentionally for symbolic purposes, or if they have been subsequently broken by vandals or exposure to the elements. More often than not, the objects I see are not broken at all, but I think that this can still be viewed as a part of the same tradition. Recently, in an African American churchyard in South Carolina, I photographed a grave on which there were several pairs of sunglasses. (I can’t speak for the people who left them there as to what the significance was for them—I presume the man buried there was known for liking to wear sunglasses—but it made me think of the Southern religious songs that refer to death with the metaphor of turning one’s face to the sun, and of an old song that goes, “Lights in the graveyard, outshine the sun.”) I also see tools of the deceased people’s trades left on their graves. For example, in Warren County, North Carolina, in the eastern Piedmont near the Virginia line, there is a very deep tradition of African American brick masonry. In that county, you can see graves decorated with bricks and trowels. It’s also traditional in African American communities, especially along the coast, to decorate graves with seashells. Most often I see conch shells placed on top of gravestones or on the ground next to them. It says a lot about diversity of influences in Southern culture that these burial traditions that are believed to originate in Africa are also to be found in white and American Indian graveyards. In earlier generations, and to some extent today, people of different races were usually buried in different cemeteries, and it’s generally easy to tell if a particular burying ground is white, black, or Indian. But the kinds of decoration won’t always tell you the community’s race, because our funerary traditions influence each other so thoroughly.

What's the most interesting thing you've come across when recording folk funeraria?

Everything about it interests me, but among my favorite things to document are gravestone inscriptions that reflect the way local people speak. My favorite example of this is a headstone in the eastern North Carolina tobacco town of Kinston. In Kinston, like in many Southern towns, the old municipal cemetery is segregated; in this case, the black burying ground is across Lincoln Street from the larger white section. On the African American side is an elaborately carved stone depicting the gates of heaven flung open—it’s a very distinctive design that I’ve seen on several stones there in Lenoir County, all clearly made by the same carver. Near the bottom, just above the grass-line, it reads, “NOW SHE REST IN PEACE.” Grammatically, that’s the way many rural and small-town Southerners, especially African Americans, would say that sentence aloud.

Do you have any interest in wider Southern folklore?

Indeed! All of my professional life, and much of my personal life, revolves around Southern folklore. I received my MA in folklore at the University of North Carolina, after completing a BA in American Studies with a heavy concentration in folklore at George Washington University in Washington, DC. I work as a freelance folklorist and oral historian, and have the good fortune to do folklife fieldwork and writing for such organizations as the North Carolina Folklife Institute, the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum, South Carolina Arts Commission, North Carolina Arts Council, and Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. My husband and I are traditional fiddlers and spend much of our time listening to old-time music, and we both work for the Old-Time Herald, a magazine about old-time Southern string band music. (My husband, who’s a native of New England, has taken beautiful photographs of old gravestones over the years, and oddly enough it wasn’t until after we began to live together that we realized we had that shared interest.)

For your readers who are interested in the funerary art of the American South, there are a lot of great resources. A couple of particularly nice websites, with a lot of photos, are John and Retta Waggoner’s, and Tom Kunesh’s Slot-and-Tab Tombs at (The latter has a good bibliography for Tennessee and Georgia gravestone studies.) There are also a lot of good books on the subject. Two wonderful recent titles are Dan Patterson’s The True Image: Gravestone Art and the Culture of Scotch Irish Settlers in the Pennsylvania and Carolina Backcountry, and Alan and Karen Jabbour’s Decoration Day in the Mountains: Traditions of Cemetery Decoration in the Southern Appalachians.