The Living and the Dead
June 20th, 2017 by David LaBelle

Angelo Battaglia pulls weeds around his parents’ grave on Mother’s Day, 2013. “After they died, I came every day, but now I don’t come as often as I should,” he said. Most people appreciate talking about loved ones that are gone.
Photo by David LaBelle

I have always been drawn to cemeteries, especially old ones containing grave markers from the Civil War era.

There is something primitive—something I cannot completely explain—that draws me there.

Whether or not we admit it, many people are drawn to cemeteries. We enjoy walking slowly among the gravestones and monuments, reading the names, inscriptions and epitaphs and wondering what the lives were like, the living souls of those represented in stone.

For me, a slow walk in a cemetery is a quiet sermon— a reminder of my own mortality. It draws to my mind Moses’ prayer in the Psalms: “Teach us to number our days that we might apply our hearts to wisdom.”

I can walk among the lives of those past, realizing I, too, must take my turn. For the moment, however, being able to walk away and enjoy what precious, unknown time I have left makes life richer.

Visiting a cemetery is also a way of honoring the dead.

It gives the living something to do, and is a place to focus their grief or talk with loved ones. They find comfort and purpose in the routine.

Perhaps we visit cemeteries because we recognize, maybe even hope, somebody will care enough when we have left this life to visit and remember us.

There are a few places in our world—public places—where exhibitions of semi-private grief are shared for any who care to stop and watch.

I realize my view may be unpopular with some people.

People have asked how I can make pictures from afar of people grieving or visiting graves of loved ones. I believe I am paying both the dead and the living the ultimate compliment. I am saying they mattered, they lived and their memory is still affecting those walking this earth.

From a distance, I am not interrupting, which is my greatest concern. From afar, the figure is universal, a shape in the poetic landscape, a figure and an object without name or story. It is when I approach them—when they are finished with their quiet communion—that I explain that I made their picture and why I did so. It is then I learn of their affection for those now invisible. I learn of their relationship, their story. Both of us are enriched with the memory.

Usually, the person I have photographed finds comfort in sharing, and truly appreciates the opportunity to tell me about the one whose face I have never seen.

We often foolishly assume we are disrespecting, interrupting or stealing if we make a photograph of someone in a cemetery. Legally, I believe if someone performs an act in the public eye, they can be photographed. Morally, I try to ask for their support or even permission to share the photograph.

Each of us is different when it comes to sharing, and some do choose to suffer alone in silence. I respect and honor a person’s right to grieve alone.

But in all the times I have photographed from a distance and then approached the person at the graveside afterward, seldom has that person been offended or not wanted to share. Usually they are hungry to talk about loved ones.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He grew up on a frog farm in rural California, roaming the creeks and hills with his coon dogs. Many of the lessons he learned during those magical boyhood years have been applied to photography and teaching the essence of this art form. For more information, visit