Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Don't let them disappear...Post mortem photography

It's taken a long time to have the conviction to sit down and write about this subject.  It's not for everyone.  In fact most people would find the whole idea of post mortem photography (especially that of children) taboo.  Most people don't understand why it would be done at all.  It's morbid.  As I've written about previously, as a society, we like to steer clear of uncomfortable subjects such as death.  And as I've written about previously, the death of children is more than simply uncomfortable.

In the 19th century the human mortality rate was very high; the children being the largest group of victims.  A good deal of children didn't make it out of infancy and if they were lucky enough to live, were sure to die of a variety of diseases preventable today (such as measles, mumps, whooping cough).  Others were killed by their professions.  Yes, five year olds with professions.  The smallest humans became coal miners, chimney sweeps, and prostitutes among other horrific undertakings (pun intended).  William Blake wrote two poems about child chimney sweeps.  Told in different voices, they still summarized the awful life many poor children were subjected to.

 The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Innocence

When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!
So your chimneys I sweep, and in soot I sleep.

There's little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head,

That curled like a lamb's back, was shaved: so I said,
"Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head's bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair."

And so he was quiet; and that very night,

As Tom was a-sleeping, he had such a sight, -
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, and Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black.

And by came an angel who had a bright key,

And he opened the coffins and set them all free;
Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run,
And wash in a river, and shine in the sun.

Then naked and white, all their bags left behind,

They rise upon clouds and sport in the wind;
And the angel told Tom, if he'd be a good boy,
He'd have God for his father, and never want joy.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark,

And got with our bags and our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy and warm;
So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.

The Chimney Sweeper from Songs of Experience

A little black thing in the snow,
Crying "'weep! 'weep!" in notes of woe!
"Where are thy father and mother? Say!"--
"They are both gone up to the church to pray.

"Because I was happy upon the heath,

And smiled among the winter's snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

"And because I am happy and dance and sing,

They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his priest and king,
Who make up a heaven of our misery."

There were no consistent birth certificates to prove existence.  My second daughter died after she was born and I am fortunate to have a birth certificate.  It is PROOF she existed.  Not just for me but for history.  Every human being born into this world has the right to be remembered.  If conception, pregnancy, and birth are as magical, mystical and miraculous as believed, then life should be remembered.  We come now to the post mortem photograph.  The only proof that someone was a living soul upon this planet; for however short a period it might have been.

If you look at these photos (both those of the children and adults) you will see that they are done with care. Of course, postmortem photos of criminals after execution are notwithstanding.  The children are dressed in their finest with all respect paid to their innocence and beauty.  Adults are posed respectfully also dressed in their best clothing with lovely props and adornments.  Many are posed with their families with them. Sometimes there was not enough time between a birth and a death of a child to get a living family portrait.   One of the oddest things I've come across are the photos of adults that are propped up as if alive with their eyes painted on (one of the features that helps photo experts decide if they have a postmortem or not).

These images are not meant to hurt of disgust.  They are meant to memorialize and prove.  The child in the above photograph lived in this world.  Not for any time or great purpose, perhaps to anyone other than her family, but SHE. WAS. HERE.  And that is what these pictures say.  Death was so common an occurrence that this was  not looked on with shock and horror.  This was looked on with love and sadness.  It is unfortunate that so many people in the modern and post modern world viewed these photographs so terribly.  In the film A Haunting in Connecticut, the main character played by Virginia Madsen comes across a pile of post mortem photographs.  With disgust she throws them into the outside garbage can instead of giving them to a local funeral home or town hall.  The dead and the past thrown in the garbage.  Precisely what these people were desperate to avoid.  You can find postmortem photographs on the internet.  They are few and expensive.  Book compilations are a pretty penny.  Online archives are available as well.  Here are a few to start with if interested.
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Don't think that postmortem memorial photography is no longer used.  It is. It's just made to be dirty and put in a back room where it's never spoken about. Hospitals offer a wide variety of postmortem photographic services; most often for the death of children. It is a way to help people process loss and deal with mourning. It is offered privately (you'll find no advertisement for it on the hospital website as a "service") and with respect.  Some don't want the photos done.  Some do.  They never push.  I have one of my own and cherish it.  It's obviously not a photo to place in a frame and put on the piano.  It is a reminder to me that SHE. WAS. HERE. 

If there are no reminders  that a person lived on this earth you can simply watch them disappear from history and memory.  That is true death.