The Mathews mausoleum in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Nisky Hill Cemetery is not great because of size, nor due to its architecture. The Mathews family had money, but they are no household name. But they are the only family I know of who used a childhood picture—in color—as the rear window of the mausoleum. I suppose the window is 4 feet by 2.5 feet, or just maybe 3 by 2.
The olde-timey picture (figure 2) is in remarkable detail, and evokes strongly a Pennsylvania summer day. It is a color image, though I suspect that the color has been added to an original black and white print. A family, a mother (l) a young son (m), and a slightly older daughter (r) occupy a boat just above a little fish dam in a well manicured lake. The boy’s knee breeches evoke around 1900, give or take.
Figure 2 is in full resolution if you wish to download it and explore the image. Figures 3 and 4 Offer the same photo but in black and white (as I suspect the original was) and also with the colors artificially saturated to offer some idea of what the window might have looked like before the colors faded.
I took most of my photos with my Nikon D3400 and a telephoto lens out at about 200 mm. The f stop was at 5, so the whole window is acceptably in focus. What this means is that we can do a little exploring of the image ourselves. Of course we must overlook reflections (from the light doorway) on the glass and the shadows of the grill work behind the window.
I saw clouds exactly like these (figure 5) en route to the cemetery today (11 August).
The trees are fully green, although some parts have died back, if the coloring is to be trusted (figure 6). So it seems to be high summer or at most early autumn. The reflections off the water and the ripples in it are wonderful. A few of the tree branches are a little out of focus: a gentle breeze?
The expressions of the boaters (figure 7), to the extent they can be made out, appear to be (left to right) loving indulgence in the wife; dutiful stillness by the son with impatience to get on to the next fun; and polite boredom in the daughter. They hold the boat still with their poles, though they are trying to make it look natural.
Between the boat and the photographer is a small artificial cascade (figure 8) which has created the gentle lake under the boaters (figure 7). On our (the photographer’s) side of the cascade the stream returns to a more natural state with visible rocks (figure 8). The cascade has not been frozen still though everything else we’ve seen implies a fairly quick shutter speed.
The shortness of the fall keeps the speed of the falling water down, and it falls as an even ribbon across the cascade. Where the water strikes the rocks on our side of the cascade the motion is blurred. The sun is bright (see the squint of the mother, looking right into it, figure 7), and the shadow of the boy’s legs indicates the sun is over our right shoulder behind us. The water on our side is transparent. Are there fish in it?
I add figures 9 and 10, taken by my iPhone XS with its default lens and camera software. It’s quite different from the Nikon image, but it also looks more like the window did to me on site than the Nikon image, which came out darker.
We look into a mausoleum and into another age, an age long gone and as dead as the cadavers within. And yet somehow a photograph of a hot summer day, especially since it is colored, brings an immediacy and life to the departed. I hear cicadas and the cascade of water. A gentle breeze may be rustling the leaves. The father is yelling at them to BE STILL.
You realize that none of the parties involved suspected the use to which this image would ultimately be put. Of all the photo albums the Mathews family might have kept, it’s a virtual certainty that this is the only surviving image, or one of a very precious few.
I’ve seen any number of funerary photos or images created from photos. Some folks just put up an easel frame on a sarcophagus; some etch a photo into a stone monument; still others incorporate photographic elements, especially faces, into otherwise idealized portraits in mausoleum windows. But I’ve never seen anything like this, and it is the most wonderful thing in the world.
Of course some evil jerk put a couple of bullets through it and now the water is getting in and attacking the emulsion on the inside of the glass. This window should be conserved and a preservation order slapped on it.