Like all those famous musicians, Rade Vujnovich was just 27 years old when he died in 1935. Unlike Jimi or Janis, we know very little about the man, but we do get to have one good last look at him. Dressed in an official uniform, hat cocked at a jaunty angle, Mr. Vujnovich stares right back at us with a goofy expression that suggests he’s holding back a laugh–or maybe just had one too many šljivovica some time between dressing up and saying cheese.
The information on Rade Vujnovich’s grave marker ain’t easy to work through. The cross-shaped granite stone was chiseled away in his native Croatian [thank you, Google Translate] and has had 85 years of harsh Western Pennsylvania winters eroding the details. But the mangled translation at least gets us the tidbit that young Rade was laid to rest here, in Beaver Cemetery, by his aunt Pipa and uncle Andja.
Every fall we make the trip out to the town of Beaver and visit its eponymous cemetery. Trees are reliably reaching their glorious technicolor peak, headstones come engraved in beautifully modern raised Cyrillic, and the uber-oddball James P. Leaf mausoleum will always ask more questions than it answers.
All that said, it is the collection of early 20th century photo graves (that’s our term) that really sets Beaver Cemetery apart. Dozens–more like hundreds–of stone markers that include inset ceramic photographs of the departed fill whole sections of the 46-acre grounds. You’ll see these photo graves other places [we first flipped our nut over them at Loretto Cemetery], but not in this quantity.
The preserved photographs are fascinating and haunting; a disappearing history in both subject and context. They have all the curiosities of any old portraiture: men in bushy, un-ironic mustaches that actually look good on them; women in the big-bowed, broad-necked pre-war fashions of the day; the dour, flat affect of a population raised in humorless Victorian times. They also come with reliably great old-world names–you try finding anyone in America still named Žita or Cveta, Beniamino or Liberata.
More than that, the photographs are visually arresting in a way our image-oversaturated brains aren’t used to seeing. Without fail, the figures appear to look right through us with a ghostly, world-weary knowing from beyond. Beware, they seem to say, or maybe just enjoy it while you can.
That the black-and-white portraits are inset into the grave markers of the humans who sat for them gives the pictures a deep, added pathos. The typically-oblong ceramic discs have lived outside in the elements for decades and almost always show a predictable level of wear-and-tear. Some of the photos are completely gone, leaving awkward oval cutouts in the headstones. For the majority that are still intact, there are hairline cracks across their surfaces, washed-out bits of silver gelatin, insect and grass-cutting debris, and–thankfully, not too often–the gouged and scarred evidence of vandalism.
As if spending one’s free time in a cemetery wasn’t existentially-draining enough, try picking out the one photograph that sums up your entire life. And then consider it’s a picture that will eventually crack, fade, and/or fall out of the rock it was embedded in…or worse. Chipped out with a screwdriver by bored middle school kids on a sleepover jailbreak–what a way to go.
The first wave of photo graves had a relatively short run. We tend to only see the old first-gen, black-and-white discs in the gravestones of those who passed in the 1920s through 1940s. At that point they seem to have gone out of vogue.
We have to wonder if this has something to do with the increased prevalence of photography. At the point where every household had a Kodak Brownie and every drug store could process film, it probably just didn’t feel that special to have a framed portrait on the mantle–or one’s headstone. But maybe, in the post-war modernist ’50s, tastes just changed away from early-century sentimentalism and toward sleek, down-to-business grave markers with little ornament and even less personal detail.
A trip to the cemetery is admittedly not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s morbid, they say, or depressing. I’ve got plenty of time for the graveyard when I’m dead.
That’s hard to argue with. But cemeteries are also fascinating repositories of history that one can enjoy with all the fresh air, chirping birds, and fall colors of a nature hike. The arrangement of artifacts is haphazard and their current state has so many random influences–from the whims of the family that organized burial to nature and weather–that the experience is more that of browsing a junk store than visiting a curated collection.
It appears to be another gorgeous day in run of them we’ve had in this, our greatest season. If you want get out and see some people without any risk of the plague, there’s no better place than Beaver Cemetery.
Getting there: Beaver Cemetery is right on 3rd Street, the town of Beaver’s main drag and just past the downtown area. It takes 40-50 minutes to drive there from downtown Pittsburgh. You’ll find the photo graves throughout the cemetery, but a good place to start is at the very back (nearest the McDonald’s).