Saturday, November 7, 2009

Frozen: A cemetery in Colma

Tombstone medallions, Colma, August 2007.

The city of Colma is the only city in the Bay Area that has more dead people than alive. So goes the joke. In an overcast day in August, we find ourselves alone in this city of the dead, save for a large flock of pigeons that circle us with military precision. Immediately I am reminded of Graciela Iturbide's birds (left); in Iturbide's world, the companions of mortality. All around us, the winged, crowned and dolorous icons of Catholicism keep vigil over the stillness, forever frozen in mournful repose.

This is where it all ends, I say to myself, not with regret or irony. Everywhere, signs of life. More precisely, signs of lives lived. As mother, father, husband, wife, lover, sibling, child. On the grass, a wayward tombstone reads "Mother". Whose mother, it does not say; perhaps mothers everywhere, mother eternal.

A magnificently winged Archangel Michael stands on high like a decorated general, one finger pointing at the heavens. Has he come to chastise the dead or shepherd his minions for one last battle for the ages? On one headstone we stage a tableau of the left-behind, a portrait of a lover's grief, disbelief and recrimination.

Everywhere, portraits from many lifetimes ago frozen in shiny medallions. For the most part, Italian faces of all ages, rendered beautifully in studio duotones that have outlived their sitters. The repeated gazing at portrait after portrait unnerves me. These staring eyes from centuries past, now dead eyes, recall the hair-raising scene from Alejandro Amenábar's movie, The Others, when the housekeeper reveals the truth to Nicole Kidman about a sheaf of photographs of people who are ostensibly asleep: "They're all dead, mum."

Graciela Iturbide, The Bird Man, Nayarit, Mexico, 1984.


  1. Kante, just curious, what were you doing in the cemetery? Great pics and article. Everytime I look at your pics and read your commentary, my present becomes surreal. Who needs mind-altering substances when I can read your posts?


  2. hey olet -- taking pictures, of course with a few pinoy photogs from flickr. day was damp and gloomy and the cemetery was deserted, peaceful, a little creepy, but in a good way. :-) one of our friends swore she photographed a specter inside one of the empty crypts. i think it was just a light flare, but who knows.