January 16, 2009

Bringing Out the Dead

I realize this post title sounds creepy, weird and very morbid, but it is related to photography I promise.

Growing up and visiting my family out west I would often spend the hours at my grandparent's place looking through the family albums. Some were from the last three decades but there was one really old album that looked like it was from the turn of the century.

It was a black paper book with a binder twine clasp to keep it closed. The black and white photos inside were kept in place by black photo corners.

This photo album is unique because it's not only a historical record of my family's history at the turn of the last century and onwards, it shows all important family events, but it's also a record of a strange and not often discussed photographic practice. That of funerary photographs.

Yep, that old photo album has many graveside pictures of my ancestors about to be buried. I was reminded of this at Christmas time while talking with my good friend who lives in Vancouver. We were discussing her wishes for burial etc (she's healthy and fine but it's a good conversation to have cuz you just never know... right?) and then somehow we came to the conversation of death and grief rituals. She commented that it freaked the poop out of her one day when she flipped through my own family photo album and saw pictures of my grandparents in their coffins with the grandkids gathered round.

It comes up again today because I was looking through a website with photography books and came upon one about the "Spirit Photographer" William Mumler (in the 1860s he claimed to be able to take pictures of the ghosts that hang around the living) and then some other books about the aftermath of Chernobyl and Katrina.

It also comes up because of an organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. A photography service that has photographers donate their time and expertise to photograph recently deceased newborns with their parents.

Some quick googling on the practice of funerary photography brings this info:

-It was certainly something people did in the nineteenth century, when photography was first gaining popularity. At least one author traced the emergence of the modern notion of the nuclear family through the conventions of funerary photographs, where families posed together with their loved ones' remains.
-Or this long post by "Clover Bee"
-Or over here on this forum where some wedding photographers discuss being asked to photograph a funeral.

So back to the photos in that old album. They're interesting. They're open casket photos. Some show just the casket tilted up at grave side, while others show the casket in a similar way with family members gathered round at grave side.

It shows a way of life that is long forgotten. A very simple way of life. It shows customs, clothing, and ancestors both living and deceased. It acts as a historical record of burial (both who was burried and the location). It shows that many of my ancestors didn't make it past childhood and that a death at old age was actually a rare thing. It shows the process of mourning, remembering and celebrating.

Even though this is likely creeping the pants off a lot of you, I'm finding it really fascinating. In fact if I was to go back to school and study a Masters of Fine Arts in Photography or something like that, I'd most likely do a thesis on 18th and 19th Century Funerary Photographs.

It's also interesting that there are still many people who practice this custom. One side of my family still does, and I'm sure there are many more out there who do too.

More soon...

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