Corpse Photography

There used to be one curious photograph in our family photo album–a picture of a baby in a casket on the porch of a farm house. All of us were either not born yet or too young to remember when the baby died, so the photo was our only link with it. Did the profile look like the any of us? I don’t know, it was a baby, but people did linger over that photo. It was also the only photo of a deceased family member I have ever seen. Until now.

I was unable to be at the funeral of a family member who died recently but the photos are now online at the funeral home website–photos of the deceased from various angles and photos of family members I don’t know–probably the grown up children of people I do know. None of them look like they are exactly at their best, and none of them look like how I want to remember them. Yes, you can order them online for a fee, and no, no one I know in the family plans to buy one.

During the Cold War, I don’t remember pictures of corpses. It was always sort of a taboo. In the newspaper business, the policy was always to show any dead bodies so that the faces were not identifiable. Can you imagine a family having to come across something like that by accident?

Now that our wars have moved to the Middle East, corpses have became the new propaganda tool. In Somalia the photo of an American soldier killed in fighting and dragged around the streets galvanized public opinion and got American troops out of the country. In Palestine’s West bank, photos of dead Israeli babies were posted on the streets with gloating victory slogans, while photos of dead Palestinian babies were shoved under the noses of visiting westerners by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. During the Iraq war, friends in the Middle East–people who were normal by Middle Eastern standards–sent me links to pictures of dead Iraqi babies. In the latest Gaza war, Hamas again trotted out dead baby pictures as part of the propaganda war.

It seems we have now become so calloused that seeing pictures of corpses is now normal, where it was never normal before. Is that why I can now see a picture of a deceased family member online halfway across the country? Or maybe it’s just a matter of different customs in different parts of the country or in different families.

Is there anyone out there whose family does take pictures of the deceased?

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One Response to “Corpse Photography”

  1. Catanea Says:

    Perhaps it is a 20th Century taboo (remember how the 19th C had sex taboos but made a cult of death, and then the 20th seemed to do the opposite….).
    Certainly in my family albums there is at least one photo of an adult woman (I think my grandmother’s step-mother) outlined in scroll form in black…unfortunately I don’t have a copy of it here in “foreign parts”. Presumably the only photo of her for people who didn’t want to forget her appearance. But that’s a long time ago. I can certainly tell you that when I was in “fifth grade” in America in about 1961 [all dates approximate] my best friend had, among the interesting qualities of her family (a younger really smart brother with cerebral palsy; a less younger sister possibly kleptomaniac; an incredible dedication to Monopoly) a family photo album which I was shown including pages-full (so 5? 6?) professional photos of her sister (“Georgiana” I believe) in her coffin. My visual memory says this was not a stillborn infant, but a baby of at least 3 months of age. The photos showed the coffin, and (even in the Sixties) had a black border. The baby was dressed in white (but they were B&W pix) and had white roses around her.
    I thought it a fascinating curiosity at the time. But now, knowing people who had stillborn babies (my mother-in-law lost a baby in the mid-fifties. Her friend, a nurse, has told her “I saw the baby and she was perfect”; but the parents never saw the baby. Neither in reality, nor was any photo taken or supplied. [I have to say, they really suffered for about 50 years for lack of what we now may call “closure”.]
    So photos of dead babies, even – or perhaps ESPECIALLY if they document the indefensible conditions of the death, but particularly if other photos show the valid life of the infant – may be vitally important to many families.


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