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Photo-Ceramic Memorial Tombstone Portraits: A Window into Our Past

Memorial Portraits Add "Life" to Tombstones

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Photo-ceramic memorial--also called gravestone or tombstone--portraits ( first popular in the late 1800s/ early 1900s) have been making a comeback in the past few years. While visiting several local cemeteries recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see quite a few newer tombstones sporting these lovely treasures. As a matter of fact, in most of the cemeteries I have visited so far, I have actually found more new ceramic photos than old ones.

As of late, owing to a decision to add a portrait to my parents' tombstone, I have been diligently researching photo-ceramic memorial portraits. There are many decisions to be made: what style and size to get, where to get it, and whether to get it in black and white or color. Much of my research has involved exploring cemeteries with tombstone portraits. I've been checking out all the different sizes and styles, as well as observing the placement of the portraits on the tombstones to aid me in my decision. While I've been looking at them, my husband, who enjoys photography, has been taking pictures of them.

Update 7-30-2012: On July 8, I ordered my portrait; I received it July 27. What kind of ceramic portrait did I finally choose? Scroll down towards the bottom of this lens for all the details.

While exploring tombstone portraits, I came up with so much interesting information that I decided to create an article about them. Here I will talk about their history, how they are made, and where to get them. Also included is a gallery of photo-ceramic memorial portraits, taken from multiple cemeteries in my area. On the newer gravestones, the last name has been masked to respect the families' privacy.

All photos were taken by my husband, and may not be used without express permission of the artist.

Tombstone Portraits Provide an Invaluable Photographic Record of Our Ancestors

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Do you enjoy exploring cemeteries? Have you ever noticed that some of the tombstones have photos on them? If you're like me, the photos really grab your attention so that you move in to get a closer look. I enjoy all tombstones, but I'm especially drawn to the ones with photos on them. Many of the photos are simple black and white pictures, but some are in color--mostly the newer ones.

Some tombstone photos contain multiple subjects, memorializing the deceased with their beloved children or grandchildren, or even a favorite pet. Often times, the photo depicts a married couple, even though only one party may be deceased at the time. While viewing photo-porcelain memorial photos on Flickr, I was struck by something quite unusual: in some of the photos of married couples, an old wife would be paired with a very young man, who appeared to be her son. In reading the descriptions, I discovered that a picture of the husband, who may have died twenty years or more before his wife, had been combined with his elderly wife's picture to produce the porcelain portrait for the tombstone, a strange sight, indeed. To achieve this effect, separate photos of the couple are combined, forming a photo collage.

Some of the photos depict the deceased in a favorite activity, such as playing the guitar or fishing, and may also reveal the occupation of the deceased, most commonly as a soldier in the U.S. Army or Navy. Photo portraits on tombstones enable the deceased to tell us their stories, sometimes one hundred years or more after the fact.

What are Photo-Ceramic Memorial Portraits?

According to Horne, author of the book, Forgotten Faces: a Window into our Immigrant Past, photographic tombstones, although originating in France in 1854, were popularized and perfected by the Italians. The art form was widely embraced by Southern Europeans, Latin Americans, and Jews from Eastern Europe.

The portraits, which are made of solid porcelain or porcelain over metal, come in various shapes: oval, round, square, rectangle, dome, or heart-shape, and may even be seen as a scroll, cross, or book-design. While visiting old cemeteries, the most common shape you will encounter is the oval, usually in vertical format, but sometimes horizontal if more than one subject is present.

For added finesse, the portrait may be rimmed by a gold border or enclosed in a fancy metal frame. Some of the frames have hinged metal covers to protect the portrait from the elements, and can be opened and closed as desired.

Photo-Ceramic Memorial Portraits in Hinged Frames

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An example of photo-ceramic portraits in hinged frames. In the back, you can see how the frames look closed, as opposed to the open ones in the front. After taking pictures of the photos, my husband always respectfully closes the lids back to protect them.

Close-Up of Two Brothers

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Brother Mark, on the right, passed on at the age of 21. Sadly, his younger brother, Joseph, a sweet-looking child with a Buster Brown haircut, passed on less than two years later at the age of 6.

Close-Up of Mother and Daughter

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These portraits were taken from the gravestone with closed frames in the back. The deceased appear to be mother and daughter, and of Hispanic descent. The girl died at age 4 in 1970, and the mother died five years later at age 27 in 1975.

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How Are Photo-Ceramic Memorial Portraits Made?

A porcelain (or ceramic) portrait is produced by firing an image onto a porcelain plaque at very high temperatures in a kiln for several hours, creating a permanent bond. The result is a vivid portrait that resists fading and the elements for 100 years or more.

Today's artisans who create these memorial portraits have the advantage of computer programs such as Photoshop to aid them in adding or removing backgrounds, adding or removing subjects, repairing damaged photos, touching up subjects (eliminating scratches, wrinkles, blemishes, etc.), and even converting black and white photographs to color or sepia, or vice versa.

How Were Photo-Ceramic Memorial Portraits Made in the Early 20th Century?

According to the book, Forgotten Faces: A Window into Our Immigrant Past, by Ron Horne, the creation of ceramic memorial photos was a multi-step process in the early 20th century. This complicated process enabled the portrait to survive for hundreds of years outdoors. The process of creating ceramic portraits varied from manufacturer to manufacturer, who each had their own carefully-guarded formulas.

Here is the basic procedure:

  1. The original portrait was rephotographed onto a large negative, then retouched to present the subject at his/her best. The corrected photo was then photographed again and reproduced onto a glass plate.
  2. The photo was put through a multi-step process of alternately washing and applying chemicals: silver nitrate, potassium cyanide, and other chemicals were applied. Various chlorides and nitrates were used (gold, silver, platinum, iridium, and palladium) to make the portrait resistant from chemicals, sunlight, and heat.
  3. The image was then placed on ceramic and fired at very high temperatures in a kiln to bond the image to the ceramic. The ceramic portrait was subsequently fired five or six additional times, turning it into an impenetrable hard shell.
  4. The image was sealed with a coat of transparent resin.

How Photo-Ceramic Memorial Portraits Are Made

Photo-Ceramic Memorial Portraits Created Using an Ink Jet Ceramic Printer

Were Photographs Used on Tombstones Before Ceramic Portraits Came into Being?

Before ceramic photos became popular for use on gravestones, other means of portraiture was used to remember the dead. The daguerreotype, which was popular from 1839--1864 was used as well as the ambrotype (1854--1865), and the tintype, which was popular from 1856 to the early 1900s.

Tombstone of Lydia Ann Pero With Daguerreotype Portrait

It's Important that Ceramic Tombstone Portraits be Preserved and Recorded for Future Generations

According to the book, Forgotten Faces: A Window into Our Immigrant Past, by Ron Horne, photo-ceramic memorial portraits are quickly disappearing through "vandalism and decay." The book also states that many authorities estimate that half are already missing or destroyed in their areas.

My husband and I have begun walking our local cemeteries and recording these invaluable gems by photographing them, as well as the tombstones to which they are attached. Actually, my husband, who enjoys taking pictures, has been photographing them, and I have the important job of "nagging" him to take the pictures (just kidding!) as well as writing about them.

Some of the faces on the tombstones we found are of our own relatives, which makes it especially important to us that we retain a record for ourselves, as well as future generations.

Our Vanishing Portraits - Vanishing Woman

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Sadly, many of our porcelain portraits are disappearing very quickly, and often end up damaged due to lawnmowers or other equipment, the elements, or vandalism. Some of these portraits have an eerie, ghostly appearance. All that remains of this poor woman's face are mostly the eyes, and a detached triangular chest area, lending the portrait a ghostly aura.

Man with Glasses

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Damage to this man's portrait resulted in a strange bowtie-shaped chip at the chin.

Sepia Portrait of Couple

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Here is an example of a sepia-colored ceramic portrait. Companies that manufacture ceramic portraits have the ability to convert portraits to sepia if so requested. In portraits such as this, which are already sepia-toned, that won't be necessary.

Although this couple passed away in the 1920s and '30s, the picture that this ceramic portrait was created from appears to have been made around the turn of the century. Although the man was nearly 15 years older than his wife, he ended up surviving her by 7 years. It's a pity that this treasure sustained such irreversible damage.

"Forgotten Faces: A Window into Our Immigrant Past" by Ronald William Horne

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I just purchased Forgotten Faces: A Window into Our Immigrant Past, from Amazon.com, and I LOVE It!

This spellbinding read is the first book on the market to explore memorial portraiture as a distinct art form, revealing a window into our immigrant past through a collection of over 350 photo-ceramic memorial portraits. Included are examples from Colma, California's historic Holy Cross and Italian cemeteries, as well as other U.S. and European locations.

The purpose of the book is to raise awareness of this disappearing art form and its need for preservation. This book is the first in the series, with more books to follow, which will document photo-ceramic memorial portraits in cemeteries in Chicago, Atlanta, New York, and Boston. I, for one, plan on collecting the entire set.

There are interesting stories behind many of the portraits, such as the doughboy who miraculously survived heavy fighting in France during World War I, only to end up fatally shot in a cafe brawl upon his return home. The portraits are fascinating, and I have enjoyed learning about the history of the cemeteries and their residents.

The book is chock full of information, including the history of ceramic portraits, and who embraced them. The methods used to create porcelain portraits in the early 20th century are described, and today's producers of quality memorial portraits are listed for your consideration. For today's memorial portrait enthusiasts, there are also tips on how to clean and photograph them. As one who has always been fascinated by ceramic portraits, this book has further fueled the fire of my interest.

BUY THE BOOK

WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING ABOUT "FORGOTTEN FACES: A WINDOW INTO OUR IMMIGRANT PAST":

Article by Patricia Yollin of the San Francisco Chronicle

Article by Lisa Montanarelli of the History Channel Club

Ancestors and Relatives - One of my Husband's Many Relatives

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My husband, who has a lot of relatives, claims this guy as a relative, but he's not exactly sure how they're related. Since both of his parents are deceased, he has no way of finding out exactly who this man is. Notice how his photo is embedded in the top of the monument rather than on the front?

Cousin Cricket, Killed Serving His Country During WWII

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My mom's cousin, who had the nickname "Cricket," was killed in France during WWII at the age of 19. I always enjoyed hearing my mom's story of how he saved her from drowning when she was a little girl. A hero to the end.

My Great-Grandparents

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I never met my great-grandmother--she died a couple weeks before my older sister was born. When my dad went to Korea in 1964, my mom, brother, sister, and I lived with my grandmother and great-grandfather. Great-grandfather loved to walk, and did it every day. When he died, he was six days shy of 91. I think he resembles Jimmy Stewart in this photo. The picture didn't turn out very clear, so I will have to "nag" my better half to take another one.

Poll: Relatives with Photo-Ceramic Memorial Portraits

Teens and Children - Teen Waits for Her Loved Ones on the Other Side

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Jennifer tragically died in a car accident, just five days before her 17th birthday. Her gravestone is beautifully etched with a heart and rose on the left side, and an ethereal angel on the right. She is kept company by an assortment of "companions," including a little girl sleeping in a giant hand. Solar lights illuminate her way on the other side.

Little Miss Sunshine

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Lauren was the victim of a boating accident. In 1993, when Lauren was only four, the boat she was on with her family was struck by another boat. The rest of Lauren's family survived. Lauren was just four weeks away from her fifth birthday. In her ceramic photo, With her shining golden locks topped with a hair bow in the shape of a crown, she resembles a beautiful little princess.

Lauren's picture is mounted fittingly on a dainty pink heart-shape tombstone. Upon the heart is a tranquil scene of a girl frolicking with her lamb while birds flutter overhead. In the background, little children fly kites in front of a glorious sunrise.

Lauren was born June 21, 1988 and died May 23, 1993, according to the marker at the foot of her grave. Her epitaph reads: "Our little miss sunshine."

Impish Redhead with a Gap-Toothed Smile

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This cute little tyke passed on at the age of 7. I love her toothless smile and her Shirley Temple curls topped with sassy bows. Thank goodness her portrait is in color, so we can see her beautiful red hair. It's quite unusual to see a ceramic photo from the 1940s in color.

Young Teen, "Gone to the Happy Hunting Grounds"

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This young man, who died a few weeks short of his 14th birthday, must have been a hunter: he has a deer motif on his tombstone. The epitaph reads: "Gone to the happy hunting grounds."

Teen with Great Hair in a Western-Design Shirt

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This teen boy, who died at the age of 17, had a really great head of hair. Of course as with all untimely deaths, we can't help but wonder what caused his demise at such a young age.

The Cheerleader

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Judging from the picture on her tombstone, that of a cheerleader in a split with three pom-poms laid out in front of her, I would say Lesia, who passed on at 16, must have been a cheerleader.

Unusual Triple Portrait Tombstone

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Taylor was an unfortunate victim of the choking game, dying 10 days away from his 11th birthday. His tombstone combines three portraits of him at different stages in his life: as a baby, graduating from first grade, and (center) as he looked before his death.

People and Guitars - Nick Lee: Police Explorer, Eagle Scout, Chaplain, Guitar Player

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Nick Lee, who was a police explorer (a youth development program that centers on a law enforcement career), lived life to the fullest. He was killed at the age of 17 in an off-duty vehicle accident. He was also an Eagle Scout, a Venture Scout, and a chaplain. Note the guitar pick lovingly placed above a portrait of him strumming his guitar. Nick's epitaph reads: "Beloved son, brother, and grandson. Eagle Scout and friend to all."

Benjamin--All Decked out for the Prom with an Orange Guitar

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Benjamin, a talented singer and musician, died in a single vehicle accident. His tombstone, a stunning glossy black rectangle with musical notes and orange guitar to the left and right of the portrait (he appears to be dressed in his prom tux) is a wonderful tribute to an obviously very much loved young man.

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What started out as a day of fun and frolic on the river turned into tragedy when nineteen-year-old Allysa, along with her friends, capsized while on an inner tube expedition.

While her friends managed to save themselves, swimming to the banks of the river, Allysa wasn't so lucky--she came up missing. Two days later, her body was located by a State Trooper helicopter search team 1 1/2 miles downstream in the forks of the river.

She was a student at the University of Alabama and a member of Alpha Omicron Pi sorority.

Her breathtaking rectangular ceramic portrait, affixed to a tall, gleaming white tombstone, is a remarkable and touching memorial to a striking young woman. If I didn't know better, I would think that her headstone was from the 1800s to early 1900s due to its lovely vintage Art Nouveau design.

Football Fans - Teen Alabama Football Fan

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Miranda died at the age of 17 in a car accident, on her way to her work study job. Her loved ones chose to include a portrait of her wearing a football jersey representing her favorite football team, Alabama Crimson Tide. Her large (around 7" tall), vividly colored photo sits on a glossy black teardrop shape tombstone accented with bright red flowers.

Unusual Double Portrait--Alabama Football Fan, Former Serviceman, and Fisherman

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This round ceramic portrait combines two photos of the deceased man at different stages in his life. Looking over his shoulder is a portrait of him as a young man in the service. This man was a big Alabama football fan: his tombstone is shaped like a football and emblazoned with the big "A" and "Roll Tide." He must have also been a fisherman: on the built-in vase is a massive large mouth bass.

Tuxedoed Biker Rides off into Heaven

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Isn't this a great ceramic portrait? No doubt this portrait, depicting a man on his beloved motorcycle, captures the true essence of the man. How interesting that he's dressed in a tuxedo for his photo! I wonder if this could have been his wedding day?

I researched Carroll Dean in an effort to find out what happened to him. The only thing I was able to find out is he died, at the age of 55, at his residence and is survived by his wife, Carolyn. Of course, it's obvious, by the big elephant barging through the red "A" graphic, that he was a true Alabama fan!

Young Mothers - Young Mother Leaves Two Small Children Behind

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This lovely young woman turned up missing on August 14, 1998, at the age of 24. Rewards have been offered for any information leading to her whereabouts, but the case has gone cold. Her tombstone is embellished with an engraving of a small boy and girl (representative of the two children she left behind) looking over a fence while butterflies, symbolic of resurrection and the soul leaving the body, hover overhead. Her memorial site is watched over by angels: one hovers over her name on the tombstone; several more are in statue form, placed there by loved ones.

Poll: Do You Believe in Angels?

A Doting Young Mom and Her Daughter Pass on to the Next Life Together

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This is a very young mom with her cute little girl. Tragically, both died on the same day--October 25, 1953. The mom passed away at 18, and the little girl at 2. Their photo is very touching; it's evident that the two loved one another very much.

The Forgotten Grave

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This photo shows the entire tombstone with a vase that has fallen into ruin. As you can see, Betty's husband isn't buried beside her, which leads to the questions: Did he remarry? Is he still alive? And if he isn't, where is he buried?

Update 6-29-2014: After joining Ancestry.com I was able to search records, articles, and family trees to find out more info about Betty and Henry. I believe that Betty and daughter Sonja were probably killed in a car accident, since they both died on the same day and in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, away from their home. Henry remarried a little over a year later, in 1954, to a woman named Kitty. Henry died in 1972, at the age of 48, after a short illness and was laid to rest in the same cemetery as Betty, but in a different plot.

Couples - Early 1920s Couple

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This porcelain portrait, which has sustained some cracking, appears to have been created from a photograph taken from the early 1920s or slightly earlier (judging from Audie's dress and hairstyle). Joe died at the age of 28; his wife, Audie, who has no death date, appears to have remarried. The portrait is set into a recess in the stone, a popular practice at the time. The designs as well as the letters on the gravestone are raised.

The Ebullient Couple

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This couple looks radiant; it appears to be their wedding day. Tragically, the man passed away after only four years of marriage. Their photo is enclosed in a silver decorative metal frame.

Dual Ceramic Portraits on a Split Tombstone

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