Through the cemetery gates of Jefferson County goes Dennis Bentley, gravefinder
As a hobbyist grave photographer, Dennis Bentley prefers his art with a side of macabre. Bentley, a radio systems specialist with St. Louis Public Radio, has actually spent the last 12 years documenting gravestones for FindAGrave.com.
In his downtime from keeping the station’s many technical systems running, Bentley has contributed some 3,000 photos to the website, creating a resource for families researching their ancestry online. On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Bentley discussed his interest in documenting the gravesites in multiple Missouri cemeteries.
“Occasionally people will leave behind, or they will build something around, a headstone. Solar lights aren't unusual. I even have a photo of one headstone that actually has a full bottle of airplane bottle whiskey.”
A former Air Force electronics instructor, technician and supervisor, Bentley considers what he does a civic duty. He maps cemeteries and does research at libraries, and his gravestone photos connect families with their loved ones.
He was in between park visits when the idea to take his hobby more seriously came to life. A radio story on NPR about the founding of FindAGrave.com inspired him to volunteer his services to the organization the next weekend. Continuing “almost every weather-friendly weekend after that,” he would go on to amass 3,097 contributed photos for the site.
His first excursion took him to the historic Jefferson County Poor Farm, which closed in the 1940s, where residents were often buried in temporarily marked graves. His journey began by simply knocking on the door and asking a stranger for permission to enter the property to take photographs.
“I made the walk with one of his dogs,” he recalled. “We walked up the fence line and I came across this area that, if I weren't looking for a cemetery, I would never have recognized as a cemetery. There were never any established headstones — or as we know them headstones. There were no markers.”
Bentley sees his hobby as a public service that is performed artfully. He brings small American flags to stick next to military graves before photographing — but notes that he never touches the actual gravestones, nor does he leave anything at the site. But he does find himself spending time composing all of his shots, finding a rewarding balance of art and utility.
“ I've learned that regardless of whatever headstone you may go out and purchase for your family member, it will not last forever. I'd say even stones that were erected in the 1860s are starting to just fade,” he said. “I've also learned, about myself, that cemeteries don't really creep me out.”
To learn more about gravesite photography, and for Bentley’s insights and reflections on cataloging cemeteries, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.