Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Keziah - 1881


People used to live more familiarly with their dead than they do now. In the medieval era the dead were buried under church floors. A hole was cut in the bottom of the vault for the body fluids. (The rest of this post is just as icky. You should probably stop reading now.) But on a hot day, the churches must have smelled of death for a considerable time after an entombment.

There were no real morticians in the medieval era. Family and friends died and were buried. They might have been washed. Death is vulgar, an insult to ones affections and senses. When you die your body will release fluids. In the ancient and medieval eras, relatives washed the dead and put them into their death sleep cleaned from the filth of death.

The dead were sometimes placed on display. In the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century it was not unknown, and in some places it was common, for a family to prop the dead up in their coffin and place them in front of a window or on a porch for any to see.

When photography became common, photos of the dead were sometimes the only photo preserved. When a dollar represented a good day’s wage, spending it on a photograph was a luxury. The only known photograph of my great great grandfather is a post-mortem picture. I do not display it, but it is in our family archival albums. It’s all we have other than a brief memoir and some family papers. It’s an old age photograph. He died in 1893 at seventy-one.

The saddest of the post-mortem photos are those of children. Because a photo was a luxury for most families, especially at mid-nineteenth century, these were sometimes the only visual memory of a loved child. They bring tears to my eyes, even though I did not know these children. Some are startling because there is a family resemblance. That could have been me, had I been born then.

1 comment:

  1. In a previous life I was a photographer, not a good one, but good enough to work for a local weekly paper. But for a time I tried to improve myself by apprenticing to a local studio/wedding photog.

    One day I came to work and we had a rush job. A family had lost one of its elders. The family had purchased a casket with a frame mounted in the top. In it they wanted portraits of all the extended branches of the family.

    My mentor quickly shot a series of photos as the family members rushed in through the course of the day. I processed the black and white prints (there was no time for color) under his watchful and extremely critical eye.

    Finally he matted a montage of the family photos that was slid into its eternal frame. Those photos mounted on the casket were only in view for a few hours and then buried along with the deceased.

    To this day it is the most bizarre job I have ever worked on. Photos are meant to viewed, not buried.

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