The first time I saw a post mortem photograph I was searching through old postcards at an estate sale. The picture was large, an 8 x 10, and after a stack of wedding and baby photos it was quite the surprise. At first I thought it must be a mistake, no one would include THIS in their family photos for sale? Seeming much more personal and emotional an item than baby, wedding or family reunion that I was used to seeing from the turn of the century…What were they thinking by having photos taken of the dead?
After a little research I began to understand and even delight in the tradition. The interest and mobility of photography at the turn of the century opened up an entirely new way of documenting life events, even the death of loved ones.
This particular example from eastern Europe, shows the family of mourners; from the clothing and style of photograph I’m guessing 1940s or 1950s.
and came along with a photo of a wedding couple …..probably a long held family keepsake, the death of an honored ancestor and the marriage….the past and the future.
How did people in the turn of the century wrap their heads around even the idea of photography? Especially in regions where things are mired both in permanency (families being in places for centuries) and constant change (government upheaval, day to day losses of family, land). My modern sensibilities are also dual – slightly uncomfortable with the display and pictures of the dead, and fascinated with the voyeurism and distance over the keepsakes of others. The story and details offered by these photos are irresistible.
Dia de Los Muertos — May your ancestors find you blessed and grateful for life….including the paper cuts ….