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State of the Arts: Seeing Lake View Cemetery in a New Light

Lake View Cemetery is the final resting place for many of Cleveland's most famous residents. But it's also the subject of a yearlong passion project by Cleveland Heights photographer Michael Weil.

On this week's State of the Arts we explore "Moonlight in the Gates: 150 years of Lake View Cemetery in a New Reflective Light."

On a cool fall night earlier this year I found myself in photographer Michael Weil's car pulling up to Lake View Cemetery on a mission to chase moonlight. 

"I have this theory that the full moon and good weather go hand in hand," Weil said as we stepped out of the car into night air thick with the sounds of crickets. 

Weil fishes out a key the cemetery has given him and locks us inside. This is something he did for an entire year. "So I spent 2018, each month, inside the gates of Lake View wandering and finding interesting objects to photograph." 

Weil's photos capture subtle details of giant mausoleums, gravestones against pale night skies and the ways tree branches cast moonlit shadows across the grass.

"So now the question is where to go?"

Wandering by moonlight
I asked to tag along because I’m fascinated by why someone would want to explore a graveyard as big as a state park in the middle of the night. 

"I really do know and appreciate the grounds here, they’re beautiful," Weil said as we start to walk through moonlit grass. I thought, 'It would really be interesting to be inside this space and see what it’s like at night and try to photograph here.'"

He suggests we start our nocturnal adventure by trying to find a grave marked by a small stone lion.

As our headlamps light the way between the gravestones, Weil tells me he continues to find new things in Lake View he wants to photograph. 

After hiking up a hill through the trees, combing between dozens and dozens of gravestones, we find what we're looking for. 

Credit Photo by Michael Weil
Photo by Michael Weil
The small lion grave marker Weil and I were hunting for in the Lake View moonlight.

"Right here. This little lion. It's a bit weathered, right?" Weil said before we turn off our headlamps. 

As we let our eyes adjust to the darkness, the details of the small gravestone come into focus. 

"It's really incredible how much, without our headlamps, right now this is all just natural light, how much detail we can see in this object. That's both a testament to how bright the moon is, but also the ways our eyes adjust and what we can see." 

Weil starts by setting up the camera on a tripod and taking a test photo. He leaves the shutter open for a long time as we stand listening to the crickets. 

You can tell he has spent a lot of time in this space as he waits for the camera to do its magic.

It was the first of dozens of moon-bathed photos he took that night. 

Credit Photo by Michael Weil
Photo by Michael Weil
One of the several photos Weil took that night as we walked the grounds of Lake View.

Reflections in moonlight
From that hillside, Weil and I continued to wander through Lake View’s mini-forests and steep lawns, taking photos of stained glass and mausoleum doorways, until it was well past midnight.

I asked him if there were any places that were too personal to photograph.

"Having our son buried here is hard, and it's hard every time I'm here, this moment and others, to accept that reality," Weil said. 

His son Josh died in a car accident in 2015. But he knew his dad was thinking about starting this photography project.

"And he thought I was nuts to want to photograph in the cemetery by moonlight, in a funny way. He just thought 'Dad, really? You’re going to do that?'" Weil said.

"It would be disingenuous for me to say that Josh isn't playing a part of this project, for sure I think about him all the time, as do I think about my (older) son Sam. Sam was able to come here with me on one of the photo shoots one of the nights. But for sure Josh is on my mind all the time."

Credit Photo by Michael Weil
Photo by Michael Weil
Photographer Michael Weil gazes up at the moon during our photo session.

Holding the key
As we packed up the camera equipment and make our way to the car, I asked Weil if it is weird to have a key to a cemetery in his pocket. 

"Never has this seemed weird to me, and maybe that’s weird in and of itself," he said with a laugh. "So having the key to a cemetery? Yeah, I understand that it’s interesting. But I think it’s a testament to Lake View, this space, that it really is a gorgeous, serene experience to be here daytime and at night. I’m just the lucky one who gets to do it at night."

Michael Weil owns Foothills Galleries in Cleveland Heights. His photo series is now on display outside throughout Lake View Cemetery.

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.