We tend to think of burial art as something solid, heavy, sedate and — as a contrast to what it commemorates — long-lived. We think of the pyramids in Egypt. We think of mausoleums in our own cemeteries. We think of gravestones.
That’s not the funerary art that Jan Christiaan Braun has recorded in Happy Together: New York and the Other World, published in 2007 by Stichting Over Holland.
This is an ephemeral art of bright colors — balloons, stuffed animals, plastic windmills, American flags, inflatable cartoon characters, t-shirts, and other mass-produced items, most of which could just as well fit into a front lawn holiday display.
Except for the messages.
You wouldn’t have “MOM” in white plastic flowers in a frame of red plastic flowers to decorate the outside of your home. Yet, it fits in a cemetery. Although not created to withstand much weather, it is a version of the “MOM” on a traditional marble grave marker. Same with “WIFE” and “DAD” and so on.
Braun spend a year visiting cemeteries in the five boroughs of New York City, documenting “the passage of a calendar year in the more recent and so more ‘lively’ sections.” The result is 150 images. Like this one:
This is fairly subdued. It appears to have been placed on a newly dug grave. Notice the red banner. It reads: “Christmas in Heaven.” Many of Braun’s photos have a similar message, reflecting a special day or the holiday of the season: “Birthday in Heaven” or “Happy Easter in Heaven.”
In this next shot, I don’t see a “Happy Independence Day in Heaven” sign, but it could easily be there somewhere in the vast array of flags and other patriotic exuberance.
This photo is a prime example of a graveyard commemoration that, with a different intent, might just as easily appeared outside a suburban bi-level.
Other graves are festooned with items that might just as easily been birthday presents — dolls for a child, for instance, or a proud t-shirt for a parent or other relative. Consider this shot:
I suspect this “#1 MoM” t-shirt is larger than the mother would have worn in life. It would seem that the woman’s child bought this shirt and brought it to the cemetery as a way to envelop the mother’s marker. As if, in a way, the marker was the bodily presence of the mother still on earth.
It isn’t an isolated instance. Braun has images of at least two other gravestone t-shirts: “GREATEST DAD” and “I LOVE GRANDPA.” That last shirt also carries the image of an infant, no more than three- or four-months-old.
Some of the wording on the colorful temporary remembrances are in Spanish, and some of the names that can be read on gravestones — often, the names are covered up by the remembrances — are Hispanic or suggest that the deceased may have been an immigrant to the United States.
Perhaps an unfamiliarly with English is responsible for the decision of some loved one to put on a new grave, amid several other commemorations, a sign reading, “Get Well Soon.”
Yet, I don’t have the sense that these buoyant mementos are imported — or, at least, that that is the only explanation. They are too much like the extensive Halloween and Thanksgiving displays that I’ve seen in the past month on many homes in my neighborhood, and the Christmas displays that are being put up, probably even as I type.
There is an effort at putting a stamp of individuality on these burial sites — the individuality of the deceased and the individuality of the decorator. Consider this image:
From the decorations, I’d probably be right in guessing that the deceased was a former Democratic precinct captain — and a Yankees fan.
Along the same lines is one gravesite that features a 2002 Florida license plate “DAD 22.” This was a guy for whom being a father was important. That comes through pretty clearly, doesn’t it?
Many of the items shown on graves in Braun’s images are sold commercially by manufacturers for those going to visit a cemetery, and many are adapted for use at a gravesite — toys, for instance, or a large image of Bugs Bunny that seems to have once been a store display.
But, then, there are other displays that are very much the handiwork of someone. Such as this grave on which the outline of a heart has been made in everyday stones around an inner heart of bright, sparkling green, red, yellow and blue stones:
Even here, though, there is a touch of the commercial: “HAPPY NEW YEAR.”
For me, the most evocative image is of a new grave with the most minimal of decoration — two small bleached tree branches and a reddish brown rock on which are written the words: “STAN THE MAN.”
Patrick T. Reardon