Ovdje Počiva: Posthumous Portraits at Beaver Cemetery

grave marker with ceramic photo inset

Grave marker with ceramic photo inset of Rade Vujnovich, Beaver Cemetery

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.

grave markers including black and white ceramic photo insets in Beaver Cemetery

Beaver Cemetery in October: fall colors, raised Cyrillic lettering, and grave markers with ceramic photo insets

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.

collage of ceramic photos found on grave markers at Beaver Cemetery

Men in bushy, un-ironic mustaches; women in big-bowed, broad-necked pre-war fashions of the day. Ceramic photo gravestone insets.

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.

gravestone with ceramic inset photograph, Beaver Cemetery

“Here lies…”

grave marker with inset ceramic portrait, Beaver Cemetery

Cveta Srzmac

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.

ceramic photo inset from grave marker

Ghost couple: Simone Riccitello + 1

ceramic photo inset from grave marker

Gone girl/gone guy: unknown couple

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.

matching gravestones with ceramic photo insets for husband and wife, Beaver Cemetery

We’re nato, we morto, and in between we hang out in cemeteries. Berardino and Liberata Dipliacita

gravestone with ceramic inset photograph, Beaver Cemetery

unknown

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.

collage of ceramic photos found on grave markers at Beaver Cemetery

Cracked, faded, and washed-out, but still hanging on. Ceramic photo gravestone insets.

gravestone with ceramic inset photograph, Beaver Cemetery

Stephen N. Burich

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.

grave marker with ceramic photo inset, Beaver Cemetery

Teresa Ulizio


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).

Look Out Loretto, Part 2: He’s Dead, Wrapped in Plastic

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man protected by purple plastic cover, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown (detail)

He stands bolt upright, looking straight into the camera. The man is young–probably in his early twenties–dressed formally in jacket and tie with a corsage pinned to the lapel. Black hair is combed flat and parted hard to one side with a pair of troublesome locks springing loose across the forehead just above his eyebrow. The facial expression is curious: fixed formal, let’s-get-this-right sternness appears just on the edge of breaking to a suppressed, forbidden smile. This may have been his wedding day.

The small rectangular photograph is preserved in thick, transparent violet-hued Lucite and has one transverse crack across the man’s chest. A handful of small dings decorate the surface as if an assailant has taken to it with a crude weapon but gave up before doing any real damage. Otherwise, it is in fine shape.

The combined piece is about the size of a deck of playing cards and mounted to a beautiful marble headstone featuring Jesus on the cross, a pointed arch shape like a cathedral window, and a fading old-world cross-and-sun image we’re not familiar with. [Pious Orbit readers: help us out here–what is that thing?]

marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man protected by purple plastic cover, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of middle-aged man encased in plastic, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

The irony of the photos mounted to headstones at Loretto Cemetery–most preserved on ceramic discs as we discussed in the previous post, but this and one other encased in thick acrylic–is that for so many, we don’t even know the names of the deceased.

What’s unique among the vast majority of photo markers here is the complete absence of identification remaining. At one time, the de rigueur details–name, birth and death dates, perhaps an epitaph or Lahke mu Zamlja inscription–almost surely filled the flat faces of the stones. But now on all but a few, they’ve been completely wiped-clean.

ceramic photograph with image almost completely disappeared on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

How this came to be, we can only speculate on–but that’s what this blogger does best! It seems likely the cause has to do with the underlying material (marble? fieldstone?) and what was literally falling from the sky around Pittsburgh through most of the twentieth century. With the Jones & Laughlin steel mill occupying both sides of the river just downhill from Loretto Cemetery until the 1980s–not to mention plenty more like it up and down each of the rivers–regular doses of acid rain had to do a number on all the headstones made from susceptible materials.

This is a noteworthy turn of the tables for an environment where typically all we know are names and dates, forever left to wonder who these people were.

marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph now broken, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown grave with faded and broken photo

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, broken, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

faded and broken ceramic photo (detail), unknown

In Part 1 of this story we looked at a bunch of these headstone photos where the name of the deceased may or may not be known, but at least we got a pretty good (literal) picture of him or her. In almost all cases the ceramic has weathered with irregular cracking throughout the piece, but the image survives with enough clarity to get a sense of the person below the earth.

Not all these photos fared as well, though. First of all, at this point there are roughly an equal number of empty oval cutouts in headstones where the photos simply don’t exist any more. It’s impossible to know if these were stolen or vandalized or simply dropped out of their markers through a century of freeze-and-thaw cycles.

But even the ones that are still here aren’t necessarily all here. The sun had faded a number of the South-facing photos to mere ghosts represented in strange gray negatives. One of the pieces (above) has been broken with only the bottom half remaining. The detail is all gone, leaving just a vague outline of the woman’s face and basic description of the house dress she wore in the photo.

ceramic photograph with image almost completely disappeared on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

faded ceramic photo, unknown

detail from granite headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of man in military dress, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Joseph Andreucci

Consider the plight of Joseph Andreucci (above) whose loved-ones ponied-up for a beautiful deep red and black granite that never suffered the erosion present on so many of the other stones. All this only to have his photo in military dress attire worn- or scraped-through to the iridescent green of oxidizing copper underneath.

The poor fellow below is not only unknown in name, but unknowable as image. It appears that some miscreant took a hammer directly to the photograph, rendering it completely unrecognizable. All that remains is a hint of combed, dark hair above the damage and a suit with jaunty floral accent below.

ceramic photograph with image vandalized on headstone of grave, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

If it’s possible to end both on a high note and six feet under, we’ll wrap this whole thing up with the big smile and voluminous curly locks of Anna Vensak. Her passing in 1996 is decidedly outside of the early century/between-the-wars window where we find all the other headstones in the series. But it seems notable for inclusion by virtue of its proximity here at Loretto Cemetery and the monument-maker’s continued use of the technique–certainly antiquated by the 1990s–deploying the oval-shaped photo, mortared directly to an inset cutout in the stone.

detail of granite headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Anna Vensak

In an age where photographs are so immediate, disposable, and omni-present as they currently are, it’s fascinating to think of a time not that long ago when a single image may be all that remains of the legacy of a human being’s time here on earth. For that one last opportunity to reach beyond this mortal coil to end up cracked, faded out entirely, or lost in the weeds of Arlington Heights is humbling at best and reaches to full-on existential crisis at worst. Either way, The Orbit will still be here, looking out for you.

Look Out Loretto, Part 1: Lahka Mu Zamlja

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of a young girl and baby, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

The first thing you’ll notice are the names: Kolesar, Zgurich, Csajka, Lippl, Knezevic. Any cemetery in Pittsburgh–certainly any older cemetery associated with a Catholic parish–will have its share of Eastern Europeans as long-term residents, but this one’s different.

Sure, there’s a couple token Irish and Italian names loitering among the stones–we spotted a Finnegan, a DiBlasio, and an Andreucci–but you’ll not any find any Smith, Jones, Williams, or Davis buried here. Kusmircak, Blosl, Czegan, Fabijanec, and Kuchta are the rule, not the exception.

marble headstone with large cross and embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

Loretto Cemetery rests at the very easternmost end of the big mount that rises above the South Side. Far below, but difficult to see from the steep angle, is an S-shaped crook in the Monongahela as it snakes between Hazelwood and the South Side. It’s an enviable location: quiet, vacant, and with terrific long views across the river to Oakland and Greenfield on the other side.

We hadn’t come here looking for the dead, but any new cemetery is worth a poke-see when you trip across it. When we did, those names–Cvetkovic, Vnencsak, Mlinac, Turkovich, Opacic–just popped right out like candy on the shelf. Something interesting would surely await.

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Toni Poljak

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of baby in high chair, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

That something came in the form of a small black-and-white photograph, cast onto an oval-shaped ceramic disc and inset directly into one of the tower-like headstones. The posed portrait was of a middle-aged woman, “Mother” Antonija Komlenić, Victorian in both high-necked formal dress and dour, no-fun-allowed expression.

The colored mortar used to anchor the piece in stone is half chipped-away, eroded by a century of industrial mill exhaust and harsh Western Pennsylvania weather[1]. The image is all there, but it’s faded and scored by sharp cracks awkwardly bisecting Komlenić’s face and torso.

headstone for Antonija Komlenić, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Antonija Komlenić

detail of ceramic photograph on headstone for Antonija Komlenić, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Antonija Komlenić (detail)

Looking around a little closer now, another headstone is embedded with the same kind of oval-shaped photo just steps away. This one features a large man in suit and tie, his head is cocked and he wears a kind of bushy mustache that hasn’t been in vogue for a very long time. Both the deep black of his dress jacket and the shade of the photo’s backdrop have worn away significantly. There’s an angled crack through the ceramic just under the deceased’s chin suggesting a sinister garrote, but the man’s face is calm–bored, even–and remarkably untouched by the hands of time.

Suddenly aware and on the lookout for more, the grave photos are all over–on stones tall and thin, mounted below marble crosses and flat on granite. There may be a couple dozen in total, scattered across the sections closest to Loretto’s entry gate on Devlin Street. At least as many feature an empty cutaway in the stone where the inset image is no longer present; its former tenant stolen or broken, weathered or vandalized long ago.

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of older man, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail from headstone reading "Rojan 1893 - Umro 1927 - Lahka mu zamlja", Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Lahka mu Zamlja

Lahka Mu Zamlja (alternately Laka Mu Zemlja), the Internet informs us, is either a Serbian or Croatian (perhaps both?) expression of condolence that translates to “may the black earth be easy on him.” Confirming this with Google translate was not very successful–it came up with preposterous gropes in the dark such as “easy land of mu” or “light mu country”[2]. But as this is likely an arcane idiom, it seems a pretty safe Balkanization of Rest in Peace.

We found this phrase on quite a number of Loretto’s graves, including some of the very ones with the inset portraits. While it’s impossible to know how “easy” the black earth was on each of these folks, the atmosphere above ground has taken varying degrees of torture out on their memorials. The photos here labeled unknown aren’t for lack of note-taking–there simply isn’t any text still readable on the headstones.

weathered marble headstone in the shape of a cross with embedded ceramic photograph of young woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of young woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

The Orbit has spent considerable time in a whole lot of bone yards over the years and we’ve written quite a bit on the subject already. It’s nothing special to see more recent headstones with all manner of high-tech integral photos, bas reliefs, and digital engravings of the deceased, his or her family, loved ones, hobbies, and The Pittsburgh Steelers. But these hundred-year-old…ish[3] photographs-turned-grave ornaments are new to this blogger. Even if I have encountered other late Victorian/pre-war ceramic photos on headstones before, it certainly wasn’t with the quantity or density found in Loretto.

They’re something special, for sure. For one, simply because of the number that are still here [and that’s even more remarkable by the obvious number that are not]. More than that, though, it may be the context or the unpredictable deterioration they’ve been through, but the people in these photos seem to look right through you with a dark, foreboding wisdom of time and fate.

Old photos are almost always interesting. In these, though, there’s somehow a deeper presence. “Wife” Maria Miklin died in 1941, but her sepia-toned portrait as a young woman–scored, chipped, and cracked across the face and torso–seems to defiantly say is that all you got? Just wait ’til you get here, Jack. Lahka Mu Zamlja, indeed.

detail of marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of woman, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Maria Miklin

detail from marble headstone with embedded ceramic photograph of a woman in bridal gown, Loretto Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

unknown

If existential blogging is what you’re looking for, The Orbit is qualified to satisfy. This whole bag conjured up all kinds of deep thoughts on memory and preservation and forever–luckily, we’ve also got a bunch more interesting photos to back that up. We’ll get to all that in Part 2.

GETTING THERE: Loretto Cemetery is in Arlington Heights and can be reached by going all the way to the east end of Arlington Ave. until it curls around to become Devlin Street. If you want a great hike, though, The Orbit recommends starting on the South Side at the base of the Oakley Way steps and making the journey all the way up and over on foot.


[1] In this case, literally a century; Antonija Komlenić died exactly one hundred years ago, in 1916.
[2] Note to Google: when you get tired of mucking about with driverless cars, see if you can translate “mu” from Croatian!
[3] An incredible number of these headstones have no remaining legible text, but the ones that do date from the 1910s to 1940s.