Once upon a time, post-mortem photography was very common. Photographs were expensive, so often these images were the only ones families had of their lost loved ones. Infant mortality rates were very high, so a lot of these pictures, like the one above, are of babies or young children. I find this image to be particularly striking because of the look on the mother’s face. The living portrayed usually have neutral expressions, a necessity for producing a good picture since the exposure time needed was so long that movement would blur the image. This woman’s palpable sorrow is rare, and deeply moving. You can feel her grief.
Nowadays, many people react to these images with revulsion, finding them ghoulish, even disgusting. And I think that says far more about us than it does about our predecessors. Time was, the care of the dead was an intimate family affair. The family would wash and clothe the body, and lay it out for viewing within their own home, often in the parlor. Nowadays, the dead are whisked away, embalmed in cold sterile rooms by strangers, and laid out in “parlors” devoid of any warmth or personality. When I worked for a funeral home some years ago, I noticed that the funeral directors would lay the bodies out in the designated rooms sometimes as much as a day ahead of time. The dead weren’t people, they were props; filled with chemicals to delay decay, injected with silicone to plump out faces made gaunt by sickness, painted to look pretty, to look like the photographs the families supplied. Ironic, the modifications made in a vain attempt to make the deceased look like “themselves.”
We want to distance ourselves from death, to tuck the dying away in hospitals, to sculpt our dead and our rituals in such a way that keeps the dead as “other.” Why would we take pictures of the dead? That’s not our grandmother/mother/child. It’s “disrespectful,” I suspect because we aren’t supposed to remember people in death, we’re supposed to remember them in life, to photograph them in life.
If we can keep death within its boundaries and out of our everyday lives, then maybe, just maybe, we won’t die.
And yet we will. Sterilizing our lives, shooting it full of chemicals, plumping our features in a vain attempt to chase our lost youth…ultimately none of this will keep our decomposition at bay. And when we treat death as a horror to be shoved away instead of a reality to be ultimately embraced, we rob ourselves of fully embracing, and being fully embraced by, our loved ones, even in death.