I inherited from my grandfather a fascination – some with more conventional sensibilities might say a perverse obsession – with old churches and graveyards around the world.
They, through my eyes, convey a sense of the existential cultural legacy that one can’t quite get from cultural artifacts.
Whenever I encounter one that captures my imagination, I tend to document it through photography.
Here’s a smattering of what I’ve seen around the world.
Once employed by the federal government, prior to my permanent banning from the Bureau of Land Management Rio Puerco Field Office for eternity following a Homeland Security investigation into my threat status as a domestic terrorist, my job include long drives to remote federal government sites for obscure bureaucratic reasons.
In Arroyo Seco (I believe it was Arroyo Seco although memory has faded), in 2016, while wasting time on the clock in my official capacity, I stumbled upon this gem hidden in the Northern New Mexico mountains.
Against the backdrop of midsummer green in Ukraine, my Ukrainian now-wife and I walked through 230-year-old Lychakiv Cemetery, consisting of more than 300,000 gravesites — literal miles of them, nearly all meticulously manicured and comely, mixed in with the occasional forlorn, ancient-looking crumbling façade
This beauty in Batumi, adjacent to the Black Sea, is perched atop a mountain a few kilometers inland. Like the previously documented churches in Ukraine, it is Christian Orthodox, as evidenced by the telltale proprietary cross design at the top.
In the interior of Georgia, deep into the Caucasus Mountains, in Borjomi, I found another modest graveyard. In every culture the dignity of death is valued and celebrated.
Latin American church architecture is a tribute to the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church that Spain championed.
Graveyards work a little differently in Latin America in that the gravesites are above-ground, often stacked one on top of the other.
And, below, on November 1, 2022, was the scene of the Ciudad del Carmen graveyard on Dia de Los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”). This annual tradition brings death to life, with skeletons and fireworks defiantly proclaiming the tangible powers of being alive.
At Ciudad del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucutan Peninsula you’ll find a distinctively non-Eurasian Jesus. He still doesn’t look exactly happy, but he still hangs in the Cathedral Izamal.
Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, is largely nothing to write home about, and the best thing I found there was a sprawling and majestic graveyard in the middle of the city. The centre also contains a dramatic Cathedral and outside the capital, on Puntarenas, I chanced upon a quaint brick-built beachfront church.
In Vietnam Christian traditions are rapidly subverted by Oriental philosophy. In Sapa, near Vietnam’s highest point, there are clear Chinese influences in temples and graveyards.
Whether you’re commemorating the lost or celebrating life, there’s no doubt that graveyards always offer slightly different insights in the places that you’re visiting.
Ben Bartee is an independent Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs.
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