To Die For! A Celebration of Cemeteries

Grave Obsession: Confessions of a Cemetery Photographer

by the Grin Reaper (a/k/a Michael Nejman)

It has been said that there are only two things you can count on in life: death and taxes. Since death is inevitable, an experience we all will share, why not stare right into its eye and draw inspiration? Seeking inspiration is just one reason I enjoy cemeteries so much. Maybe that's why I've traveled around the world for the past twenty years photographing them.

To me, cemeteries are beautiful outdoor museums. Places I can go for solitude and solace. They are peaceful settings with dramatic sculptures where I can ponder my life and study those of others who have come before me. What years did they live in? When did they die? Did they leave any parting words? Any bits of wisdom? Is there a witty line or sarcastic jab? What kind of monument did they leave for themselves? A simple marker or a majestic, marble sculpture? Is the sculpture morbid or beautiful? Is the statue of a weeping woman or an angel looking toward heaven? How does their graves fit historically in the graveyard or the country? Is it war-related? Is it the oldest grave in the cemetery? Before I know it, a "quick stop" at a bone yard ends up lasting several hours.

So, forget the usual tourist sites, skip the churches, and postpone the museum visits. For me, the first stop at any new destination, either in the United States or abroad, is the city's most intriguing necropolis.

A significant part of my life has been spent walking around graveyards. For almost two decades, I've photographed various cemeteries during my travels to England, Italy, Ireland, Belize, Thailand, France, Singapore, Egypt, Russia, and throughout the United States. When I share what I do with people, there are usually one of two reactions: 1) "How disgusting!" or 2) "No kidding! I love cemeteries, too!" Inevitably, if the person gives me the second response, it's followed with a story of a cemetery I shouldn't miss or a bizarre gravestone they've seen.

Besides the philosophical, aesthetic and historical value of a cemetery, I find it a bonus when it contains a celebrity or two. It's exhilarating to visit the final resting place of an artist, musician, actor, poet, writer, or historical figure. If I didn't have a chance to meet them in person, this is the closest I'll ever get to them. Celebrity grave sites, from my "Graves of the Rich'n'Famous" collection, include the final resting places of Edgar Allan Poe, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Oscar Wilde, just to name a few. Periodically, selected celebrity sites will be featured in "Gallery."

This site was developed as a natural extension of my photography on the topic. My work has been exhibited in Chicago galleries, nightclubs, and coffeehouses. Press coverage for my "To Die For! A Celebration of Cemeteries" exhibits has included: Playboy, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Illinois Entertainer, NewCity, and on the Kevin Matthews radio show (formerly heard on AM 1000 in Chicago), as well as the "Wendy and Bill" radio show (formerly on WKQX in Chicago).   The Web site has been featured on  the Canadian Broadcasting Company, in FATE magazine, and in newspapers across the United States.  "To Die For!" was also selected Yahoo's "Pretty Strange Site of the Day."

As a writer, I have free-lanced for the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, LA Times Syndicate, Programming magazine, and the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle. Features include coverage of two world-wide music events, a travel piece on a bizarre Italian cemetery (see "Dying to Get In" for more info), and rock landmark tours of London, New York, and Los Angeles. Some articles have been nationally and internationally syndicated.   


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