Skip

Grieving through photography
July 23, 2010 1:23 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes thought to be a bizarre Victorian custom, photographing corpses has been and continues to be an important, if not recognized, occurrence in American life.

[Warning: links photos of deceased, of all ages, might be disturbing for some]

Aptly named le morte de bea arthur brought up Victorian Memento Mori photography in this [live baby photography] thread. The internet offers several places to view more, especially if you're willing to pay $7.99. As well as an obligatory Facebook group.

While the front page quotation is misleading - Memento Mori photographs were popular in Europe as well - it is true that photographing the dead is a part of modern grieving, too. Some parents have professional volunteers take photos, while others can have their own photos retouched. The whys and hows of taking photos are addressed here.

While most of these photos are only viewed by families, others are posted more publically, as heartbreaking tributes, religious/political statements, and even award-winning, controversial art.

[Previously, Memento Mori photography] and [Previously, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep]
posted by brambory (33 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 


Also previously.
posted by spock at 1:36 PM on July 23, 2010


I took photos of my beloved Mom in her casket during viewing at the funeral home. I am the only one in the family that has seen them. I don't know why I did it..they were almost impossible for me to view. Those jpegs are buried in backup drives and CD's to be viewed only by those that go through my digital archive after I die.

The pics weren't of her anyway.

She was already gone.
posted by HyperBlue at 1:44 PM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Friend of a friend had a full-term baby that was stillborn. Terribly sad. They knew in advance of the birth that the baby had passed away, so they arranged to have professional photographs done. I have seen those photographs, and, IMO, they are an artistic and lovely remembrance of the child (i.e. the lighting, the poses, everything is just right). They also had family members visit in the hospital, and I have seen those amateur photos, and let me tell you, those photos are ROUGH. They tell no lies. Seeing the difference between the two sets of photos confirms to me the value of having professional photos done in the case of a tragedy like that.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:54 PM on July 23, 2010


Another fun fashion for Vicky ladies was fetish jewelry. Fetish in the classic voodoo doll meaning.

There was a craze for having a photo realistic closeup image of the eye of a relative or significant other on a ring or bracelet. Often this jewelry would feature a locket to hold a lock of hair from the eyeball owner's head.
posted by Babblesort at 1:56 PM on July 23, 2010


Is this weird? hospitals offer to take a picture when babies die so you can have something, and I'm not sure how common it is but the Catholic side of my family take a picture too. Not grinning thumbs-up-by-the-coffin ones like I've seen on US sites though.
posted by shinybaum at 1:58 PM on July 23, 2010


On the other hand, posting a link to dead baby pictures in a thread about a cute living baby wasn't perhaps how I'd like to be remembered...
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 1:59 PM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lutoslawski, this guy understands what you're going through.
posted by John of Michigan at 2:12 PM on July 23, 2010


On the other hand, posting a link to dead baby pictures in a thread about a cute living baby wasn't perhaps how I'd like to be remembered...

Eponysterical?
posted by clarknova at 2:21 PM on July 23, 2010


I can't decide what I think about this.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:32 PM on July 23 [+] [!]


Which link did that come from? I am sort of dead baby-ed out but am curious if there are more like that one.
posted by smartypantz at 2:25 PM on July 23, 2010


The anti-choicers claim that the picture Lutoswalksi links is a 6 weeks fetus, but it's not. The fetus in the photo looks to be about an inch or so long. A 6 weeks fetus is only 1/6 to 1/4 inches long.
posted by yarly at 2:28 PM on July 23, 2010


I took pictures of my recently deceased grandmother in her casket. It seemed a very normal and healthy thing. There's even a rather touching closeup of her hands holding her favorite kind of flower. I didn't print them out or share with anyone, although if a family member wanted to see them I would let them. There's nothing morbid or wrong with it, and if you don't want to do it there's nothing wrong with that either. A lot depends on the circumstances of death and state of the body, of course.
posted by Burhanistan at 2:30 PM on July 23, 2010


I took photos of my grandfather at the funeral service. I don't feel comfortable doing so in front of anyone and waited for all to leave. I remember worrying most about upsetting my grandmother. I couldn't help myself however and don't regret taking them. I have looked at them once in the 7 years since his death, but am glad they are there. Sounds weird to some I'm sure, but hey... it world for me.

When it comes to people looking at arbitrary pictures of dead people though... that's just messed up man.
posted by all4one at 2:39 PM on July 23, 2010


I still find this rather inspiring.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:48 PM on July 23, 2010 [3 favorites]



Wow, Halloween Jack -

I've never seen a pic so utterly unexpected, yet so utterly on topic!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 3:09 PM on July 23, 2010


Which link did that come from? I am sort of dead baby-ed out but am curious if there are more like that one.

It was from this blog.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:07 PM on July 23, 2010


> "I can't decide what I think about this."

Oddly enough, I find it pretty easy. It's a collection of cells that didn't make it even halfway across the pitch, let alone all the way to the end goal.

If you actually look at the blog, it's Quiverfull oriented, so an anti-abortion, super-conservative "let's explode babies everywhere" religious type thing. The post itself is part of a series of overdramatic, overemotional posts on a scientific/medical subject and like varly says, it contains many medically inaccurate statements in order to manipulate it's audience into thinking that an abortion is the same as the death of a more viable fetus, because you know. Flesh shaped like fingers make something a real live human being.

I don't begrudge the OP the link, but ugh, what a manipulative photograph. I almost want to think that it doesn't deserve a place amidst the grief of parents and family, when it seems specifically designed to be thrown in your face as a talking point.
posted by saturnine at 4:33 PM on July 23, 2010


As I've mentioned on here before, I photographed my dad in his death bed. I think it is an appropriate way to recognise someone's passing.
posted by Lleyam at 4:38 PM on July 23, 2010


Warning. This link (http://stillborn-angels.memory-of.com/About.aspx) embedded in "heartbreaking tributes" crashed my browser when I closed the link. It happened twice. I use Firefox.
posted by marsha56 at 5:48 PM on July 23, 2010


I really understand why people do this. But it's terribly creepy to have it in your living room so that company can see it when you invite them over for a casual dinner as had happened to me. I don't mind these things, but i want the option not to look at them or a chance to prepare myself mentally.
posted by inturnaround at 5:54 PM on July 23, 2010


It was a bit unsettling to discover some of these in my own family's photograph collection that stretches back more than a 100 years (very sparse on that back end). In one case, I scanned a copy of one deceased ancestor and sent it to a cousin. Incidentally, the cousin had a copy, so it appeared that someone had mailed a copy of the photograph for those who were not able to be there for the funeral. That photograph was probably from the 1910s or 1920s. The most recent one was probably 1940's.
posted by Atreides at 6:30 PM on July 23, 2010


I wish that Lutoswalksi had given a little more warning in his post. Might be a trigger or difficult for some people.
posted by pearlybob at 6:40 PM on July 23, 2010


You can see a ghost in this one!!!
posted by dibblda at 6:40 PM on July 23, 2010


I bought an antique photo album at a farm sale years ago, full mostly of solemn school pictures and awkwardly posed formal group portraits, but in the back had been tucked a small stack of loose memento mori photos. I found them really endearing and moving, and was sorry that whomever had put the album together hadn't put any names on any of the photos, it would have been kind of fun to see if any of the people were buried in the local cemeteries or if by chance still had family in the area who would be interested in a piece of their history.
posted by padraigin at 6:44 PM on July 23, 2010


The anti-choicers claim that the picture Lutoswalksi links is a 6 weeks fetus, but it's not. The fetus in the photo looks to be about an inch or so long. A 6 weeks fetus is only 1/6 to 1/4 inches long.
posted by yarly at 2:28 PM on July 23 [+] [!]


That is true if you are counting 6 weeks from the first day of the last menstrual period (this is the most common and standard way of counting and it's called gestational age). If you are counting 6 weeks from fertilization/conception (which would be 8 weeks gestational age), the embryo would be around half an inch long. If the woman holding that embryo had very small hands, it could possibly be an embryo at 8 weeks gestation.

This is not to say that Quiverfull folks don't exaggerate for effect, but being pregnant currently has made me pay an awful lot of attention to the minutiae of embryogenesis.
posted by fancyoats at 5:51 AM on July 24, 2010


I took photos of my beloved Mom in her casket during viewing at the funeral home. I am the only one in the family that has seen them. I don't know why I did it..they were almost impossible for me to view. Those jpegs are buried in backup drives and CD's to be viewed only by those that go through my digital archive after I die.

I did the same thing at my grandfather's viewing. I felt so strange, deviant, so I waited until almost everyone had left the room, but I was glad I did it. I told my dad I had them, and he asked for them. I think they helped him.

At a viewing, you're so afraid to look at the person you once knew and loved. It's just so wrong-- it's not them, this isn't real. But after time has passed, you're glad for any extra photographs, because you never had enough from when they were still alive.
posted by rubah at 9:44 AM on July 24, 2010


> At a viewing, you're so afraid to look at the person you once knew and loved.

I've noticed this attitude and reticence at viewings, and quite frankly it seems to me to more have been that people were afraid that others were seeing them grieve, not because of the surreality of a corpse of a loved one.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:18 AM on July 24, 2010


My sister took pictures of my mom, who died at home, before Mom's was taken away for cremation. Mom's body must have weighed 70 lbs., a frail shell of what once held a dynamic, strong woman. I still don't know how I feel about the pictures. Weird and sad, yes, but they also helped me accept the finality of her death, especially since she had been cremated by the time I arrived.
posted by theora55 at 11:46 AM on July 24, 2010


I am totally happy that there are pro photogs out there who volunteer to or are just plain willing to do shoots of stillborn infants because I think it is so important to the parents who already knew (in some way) that baby and loved it, even before it was born.

I really don't understand why it's considered controversial or even "icky."

However, I can also say that as someone with a baby who also does work for a micro-preemie focused charity and has becoming ridiculously sensitive about anything to do with infant death*, prematurity, fetuses, etc., there is no way in hell I am clicking on any pics of dead babies.

*But dead grownups? I could look at weird-ass pics of them all day long without issues.
posted by Never teh Bride at 12:13 PM on July 24, 2010


For some reason my sister asked me to loan my niece my camera during my father's funeral. The photos consisted almost exclusively of pictures of my niece and her friends...and close up shots of my father's body. I go with my first instincts on these things, which in this case was total repulsion. To me it seemed like my niece still did not fully grasp what the funeral was about (she was 13 at the time) and even if she did, she was thinking more of herself than of family/bereaved. I deleted all of them.
posted by medea42 at 2:37 PM on July 24, 2010


The only thing I find more disturbing than open casket funerals are people taking pictures of said open caskets. I prefer to remember my deceased loved ones as they were when they were healthy and not as they looked when they were dead.

Different strokes, I guess.
posted by autoclavicle at 2:42 PM on July 24, 2010


The only visitations with open caskets I've been to have been for each of my grandparents. I never felt in any of these situations that it wasn't more than just an empty husk of a body sitting in that coffin. The vitality of life was missing from their appearances and the familiarity of love and kinship I held for them did not extend to the bodies in the coffins. I would not have wanted a photograph because it would not have captured them, just those empty bodies.

Perhaps its different when someone who hasn't lived a long life and aged accordingly lies in the coffin, but for my experiences so far, it's been my experience.
posted by Atreides at 3:20 PM on July 24, 2010


Last year, my 50-something-year-old brother-in-law was diagnosed with a kidney problem the first week of May and succumbed to it by the last week of May. Poor man. He was so bloated that the casket wouldn't close. My sister asked that I photograph her and my nieces next to the casket, and then to take some other snaps of his body on her digital point-and-shoot, and I did. The girls were weirded out, but dutifully stood next to the casket as their mother asked of them. They wouldn't look in it. I suppose if I were only 13, 15 and 17, I wouldn't either.

I noticed almost everyone alse at the funeral just gave a quick glance and hurried by with a shudder. I'm not fazed by dead bodies, so I looked, and the body was grey and slack, for all the bloating and makeup. I won't soon forget the fingers so sausage-like that couldn't lace together. For all the spirituality we infuse Life with, his fingers... they were just hunks of flesh. I kept wondering, "What is all this, then? What IS this?" Sparkling consciousness and then - BAM! - you're just meat, more or less.

Yet, I am less afraid to die than I used to be; I realized that only people who don't really live are the ones who are afraid to go. I mean, it'll be the more or less the same as before we were born. No one seems to freak out about the idea that there's been at least 4.5 billion years where we weren't here.
posted by droplet at 10:36 AM on July 25, 2010 [2 favorites]


« Older "The Smith & Wesson Coloring Book for Kids"   |   Default Setting Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post