‘Grave Matters’ exhumes literary secrets

“Grave Matters,” an exhibit put together by Mark Taylor, a professor of religion who photographed gravestones of great Western thinkers and artists, is currently on display at MASS MoCA. The exhibit also features soil samples and grave rubbings collected by Taylor.

In the exhibition catalogue, Taylor writes, “Origins are always obscure even when beginnings are not. I know when this work began but am not sure when or how it originated. Grave Matters began on a lazy day in the summer of 1956, when I was 11 years old.”

Taylor describes how he opened the family Bible and found, in between the Old and New Testaments, a record of two deceased siblings. This marked one of Taylor’s first close experiences with death and memory. He goes on to describe his first visit to his sister’s grave in Illinois during a cross-country trip.

Taylor says he began taking grave rubbings of people that he “half-affectionately called [his] ghosts.” He began with Kierkegaard, and gradually amassed a collection of images of the tombstones of famous thinkers and artists.

Taylor shows how he believes the evolution of cyberspace and technology to be gradually stripping away “bodily being, material reality, face-to-face contact, personal relations, genuine community – in short, real presence.” He describes the thoughts of Has Moravec, the director of the Mobile Robot Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University, who, “without a trace of irony. . .waves ‘Bye Bye Body’ and projects brains in vats which, he believes, will free us from the constraints under which we now suffer.”

The next section of the essay details the circumstances surrounding the deaths of many famous people, how their last wishes were or were not respected and how the people around them responded to their deaths. He also engages in a philosophical exploration of the idea of death, in the context of the previous discussions.

Taylor closes the essay with a description of how he found a final resting place for himself. He first considered the possibility of being buried in the College cemetery, where a place is guaranteed for every tenured professor. He writes, “Though the place is extraordinarily beautiful and reassuringly peaceful, I found it unbearable. It was as if some deranged administrator had convened a faculty meeting that would continue for eternity. I fled in horror.” He finally decided on a cemetery called South Lawn, which is nestled at the foot of Mount Greylock by “a graceful bend in the Green River.”

All of the photographs in “Grave Matters” are black-and-white. They are beautifully composed, and what is most striking is how the different images can inspire different emotions in the viewer. Claude Monet’s grave, located at the Giverny Church Cemetery in France, consists of a white marble cross next to a wall. It is surrounded by tulips, vines and many other plants, giving Monet’s grave a sense of peace and beauty. It stands in great contrast to Lenin’s grave, which looms as an enormous stone mausoleum in the middle of a deserted Russian square, bordering an enormous stone wall and a row of pine trees.

Some of the photographs do not really depict graves at all, as in the image of the sea off the coast of Eastbourne, England, where Friedrich Engels’ ashes were scattered. Perhaps one of the most depressing photographs is that of Walt Whitman’s tomb in Camden, N.J. It is flanked by two beech trees with hundreds of initials scrawled into the bark, and on the ground around the grave lie only dead leaves and a few small plants. In the background stands a large institutional concrete building, showing civilization’s encroachment on the poet’s final resting place.

Van Gogh’s grave in Auvers-sur-Oise, France, is perhaps one of the most intimate, consisting of a dark, simple inscription in an old stone wall, surrounded by leaves of ivy. This stands in great contrast to philosopher Immanuel Kant’s grave, an enormous stone temple in Kaliningrad, Russia, with square marble columns, wrought-iron gates and a high, patterned ceiling.

Taylor notes in his essay that Kant had wished for a small, private funeral with no viewing; after he died, however, his body was left on display in his home for 16 days, open to a steady stream of visitors and people paid large sums of money for such insignificant objects as Kant’s worn-out tobacco pouch.