Saturday, March 13, 2010

In Defense of the Death Portrait





Maybe it's the time of year? That the first little knobs on the trees, the sunshine struggling against the chill, the longer days, turn my mind, paradoxically, to death.

Or maybe I'm always thinking about it, somewhere behind the everyday struggles and little bits of joy, the clouds.

Whatever the reason, I'm fascinated lately with Victorian Death Photography. That the Victorians seemed routinely to memorialize their loved ones in permanent death images, many of them posed like regular portraits...it amazes and impresses me. Of course, death was all around them all the time--life expectancies were short, and many died in babyhood and childhood, diseases that are now easily treated, then were lethal. Death was a part of the cycle, in a tangible and public way.

We don't do this now, of course, take photos and glue them in our photo albums among the wedding and baby pictures. My father died upright in his favorite red leather easy chair one morning in January, and my sister and I sat on either side of him as he left. I remember how lightly we breathed in the dim morning, trying our best not to disturb his passage that seemed so precarious--I didn't want him to suffer anymore, and I didn't want to make any noise that would startle him back to his pain. We spoke to him our encouragement in whispers that fell almost soundlessly into quiet air. And as I watched the life leave his eyes, as they opened suddenly, and fixed on a far point in the room, and then died--his eyes died before he drew his last rough breath--I still couldn't believe he'd gone, although no one with eyes like that could ever return to this world. Afterwards, we continued to speak in whispers, even as we hugged and kissed him...it was a long time before we could call the funeral parlor to take him away, we couldn't stand to let him go. In the end, the relatives came swarming and fluttering and hovering, and they made the calls. But I always felt that they simply couldn't stand the sight of us with the dead body, sitting with him, holding dad's cold hand. My sister and I knew that the passage between life and death, though irrevocable, is not such an absolute. Dad was alive, we held his hand, and he was dead--why would we throw the hand away in sudden horror? I saw a terrible fear in their faces; but I was unafraid.

In the weeks and months that followed that day, I thought often about those moments beside dad, and I began to wish that I'd had the presence of mind, or the nerve, to have taken a photo of him, dead in his chair. I had not yet become interested in the Victorian death portraits, and my strange impulse was somewhat sui generis. A photograph would have marked the passing, whose details I returned to, obsessively, again and again in my mind over those weeks and months. Anyway, my mind returned to it: the last breath, the dead eyes, dad cold in his chair. The photo would have helped me, I am sure of it, to be certain of that moment. Was I really there? Did it happen that way? And...was he dead?

Had I been a Victorian girl, I might have had the assistance of the relatives--together, we would have dressed him in his favorite trousers, his suspenders, his special gaudy tropical print shirt, and arrayed ourselves around him arms over his dead shoulders, living cheeks pressed to the dead face, and we would have stared into the camera, eyes filled with grief, but with a certainty also.

As it was, the relatives were disgusted, afraid, and dismayed already by our tender proximity to the dead one. Such a portrait was unthinkable; they would have thought me utterly mad.

But I know the truth. That the dead are among us, that we are among them, that there is nothing to fear, that we should not so quickly hide the body away and with the body, hide away our abject sadness and longing. The need is strong, to rush away to life. But it is, after all, an impossibility: for the ones who attend, who sit vigil as life ends, that death scene is real and we will always carry it with us, the images of it, the feel of it and the sounds and smells in the quiet room. To externalize it, to take it outside of the darkest recesses of one's soul, in a simple portrait--unafraid, unashamed, unhidden, pasted up in an album that could be taken down from a shelf and looked at, until one didn't feel so alone with the secret memories...

53 comments:

Liza said...

my aunt took photos of my grandmother in her casket that my mom thinks are disturbing to this day. i remember seeing them, and thinking of them as quite strange but now after reading your post, perhaps it wasn't so strange after all.

thanks for sharing.

Martin H. said...

It's strange to think that, in this so-called modern age, when we're bombarded with images of death and dying, when people have 'virtual' power of life and death in the games they play; we have actually developed a real fear of the reality of death. It's the one great certainty in all our lives, yet we recoil at the very thought of it.

I enjoyed this post Leah. It's so sensitively written, particularly the account of your father's passing. And I can fully understand why a photograph of a newly deceased loved one, might be a desirable possession.

Barry said...

My mother passed away a couple of weeks ago as we all gathered by her bedside in the hospital. Her shallow breathing became more and more gentle until it just stopped. There was certainly no sense of horror or profound dismay, although tears were shed and we took turns holding her hand and kissing her goodbye.

The demarcation between life and death is profound but the passage between the two can be lightly crossed.

We took no photos, but I will remember that time forever.

The Unbearable Banishment said...

That's a lovely post. We western moderns seem to have an irrational fear of death. When it comes near, we push it out of our homes and let an institution handle it. My sister was with my mom when she passed last year and she said that when mom let go, she seemed almost joyful.

nick said...

A wonderful piece about the experience of death. I don't think there's anything odd about taking photos of the dead person, though personally I would prefer photos of them enjoying life. I've never actually seen anyone die so I have nothing to say about that. I just wish that people always died as simply as your father and not as they often do after long and painful illnesses.

Leah said...

Nick: alas, though the actual death was peaceful, it did take place after a long and difficult illness...I do wish it had been just him slipping away one day after two happy years rather than two painful ones...

Leah said...

Liza: how interesting that she did that! I wonder, does she look at them often, and where does she keep them...

Martin: everything you say is absolutely correct--I often think about that, the way we are so inured to fake or removed images of death and violence, but so afraid of real death. It would seem that so much grappling with media images has not really helped us confront our primal feelings...

Leah said...

Barry: my most sincere condolences on your mom's passing. Your description sounds so familiar, very poignant.

Leah said...

UB: yes, we do push it out of the home, when historically it always happened at home, like birth! We had to struggle with dad's relatives to bring him home to die in his own cozy apartment--they were afraid, but my sister and I thought it was the good thing, and in the end, we were right to do it. But it was an uphill battle...

I'm glad to hear your mom's passing was like that...

Brian Miller said...

wonderful post leah...i felt more like liza was saying, but after reading perhaps not so much...hope you have a wonderful weekend...

Betsy said...

I've never been in someone's presence as they passed from life into death, but The Mister did with his mother. Very sweet, loving post, Leah...I don't think I'll think of it quite the same after reading this! How wonderful the loving relationship you had with your dad.

willow said...

We take so many photos of our loved ones in life, why not in death, as well? Beautiful, poignant, and thought provoking post, Leah.

LadyCat said...

It is good that you have a pleasant memory of your Father in life and in death. When my Mother passed away, they whisked her into the red velvet bag so quickly. I found the image of that bag more disturbing than her lifeless body.
I think there is a much thinner veil between the living and the dead than most realize.

savannah said...

i read this earlier this morning and couldn't catch my breath for the tears. this was one of your most sensitive and moving posts, sugar. thank you for your generosity of spirit in sharing this today. xoxoxo

The Clever Pup said...

Leah, thanks for sharing this very personal experience.

We are so used to having others take care of death these days. In the 1950s my Great Grandfather died in the house where my parents were living. My father helped lay him out and visitations happened in the house and G-Grandfather's body stayed in the parlour until the undertakers removed him for the funeral.

I had a look at the website you included. Very interesting.

Ponita in Real Life said...

As a nurse, I have been with patients when they died. Some it was just a slipping away after a lengthy illness. Others it was a battle as a horde of us health care types would try vainly to jumpstart a worn out heart.

But I was also with my dad when he died... in hospital... oh god, was it over 20 years ago already??? We were all there... all his kids... and his second wife. And as his last breath eased slowly from his cancer destroyed body, my oldest sister let out a wail. I was looking right at Dad, and could see him struggle to come back... his first baby was in trouble and he needed to come back... so I grabbed her and held her and told her, 'shhhh... let him go, just let him go.' As she sobbed into my shoulder, I could see Dad relax and fade away...

And now I am in tears, after reading your beautiful post and remembering my own dad's death... Thank you Leah, for such a poignant gift that you've shared with us.

Death is not to be feared... it is but part of the cycle of Life.

jennyfreckles said...

What a sensitive and thoughtful post. I count myself fortunate to have been with my dad when he passed peacefully away - it was very beautiful really, not at all frightening. I don't have a photograph, but the moment is etched in my mind.

Christine H. said...

I'm so glad to read your perspective on this, because I have never understood the desire for death photos. I still don't like them or desire to have any, but it does help me to understand why you might.

Pat said...

I saw my father in his coffin and I wished I hadn't because he wasn't there. I really believe the body merely is a shell for the spirit, which leaves when death occurs. I was with him two days before he died and that is my last memory of him - along with years of other memories.
For myself I would rather people didn't view me once death is ascertained. When I was a child the dead were laid out in their front rooms with the curtains drawn and friends, family and neighbours would come to view - including me - which I hated.
Chacun en son gout.

Tom said...

the way you describe it makes so much sense...but I don't imagine most would have the presence of mind to grab the camera...

mago said...

Friedell's book "Das letzte gesicht" / "the last face" comes to my mind. and a lot of other things i want to forget again.

Pat transplanted to MN said...

Bery very intersting.....my family took casket photos too and I always thought that gruesome...it took me a long time to be able to attend funerals after growing up having to touch the bodies, etc. I don't believe the body is the person after death and finally I was able to become adult about attending funerals. Good thing because there have been ever so many the last years to do!

Queenmothermamaw said...

A beautiful and well written account. I am a retired RN and have been with patients who passed so easily and some with great struggle. I have never seen anyone take a picture, at least at the hospital. Maybe at the funeral. I remember when I was a little girl folks were viewed in their homes and remember other children being forced to view the body up close and how upset they became. I vowed never to do that to my child.
QMM

Vicki Lane said...

Beautiful post -- and a wonderful defense and explanation of a custom that had, heretofore, been incomprehensible to me.

The Silver Fox said...

That post "hit" me on so many levels... personally as well as objectively. I could write a comment twice as long as your post in response, but I won't.

Extremely moving. Great job.

Princess said...

Miss Leah,

thak you for sharing such a poigniant and truly loving experience. It bought back many memories, similar to Miss Ponita's
during My own nursing days, and sharing the moment of transition with those that were alone in the world or had family that no longer cared. It is a very special and humbling moment to share.

I think that in years gone by that death was just accepted as a natural part of life. I recall a story that my grandmother would recount about her rounding up all the children in her street to come and visit her dead grandmother while she lay in state in the family livingroom.
There was no sense of these type events being odd or strange in her day. They were common and just happened matter of factly. Just a part of normal life.
I can understand the Victorians and their facination, as photography was quite a new phenomenon, so how better to remember a loved one than with Phisical evedence of their death.

Jimmy Bastard said...

I've held too many heads at the moment of death to add anything more soothing to your delicate post, and give it the real justice it deserves.

Memories can be both beautiful and extremely painful to those left behind.

Ronda Laveen said...

It is so true, little one, that the moments of death are often wasted, not used as well as they could be, do not honor the live or the dead. That moment is just as important as the moment of birth. I will check out that link. Artfully, beautifully and heart-fully stated.

Cheers.

kylie said...

after my brother-in-law died i took photos in his casket for his family overseas. his grandmother complained that there was only one that showed his face front on and i wondered why complain? after all it wasnt going to change.

i also remember friends of the family whose daughter died in london.a friend over there sent a photo of her before burial and sent a letter explaining that a photo was to come. they got the photo first. it must have been horrific at the time but i would like to imagine that after the initial shock it was a good thing

i'm sorry your dad had a difficult end and i think it's wonderful that you helped him to die at home.

lettuce said...

Leah, I really connected with this. I felt like that when my mum died - I wanted to sit there all night holding her hand. And even a few days later, seeing her for the last time before the funeral, I had to touch her and didn't want to leave. I don't know if I'd want a photo of her in her beautiful willow casket - it wasn't her. But also, it was. And I can understand the impulse.

those Victorian photos are heart-breaking, so many dead children.

Karen ^..^ said...

Wow. Such a powerful post. I kind of wish we'd bring this back, as I feel that with most things, death is viewed and handled in a most unhealthy way.

I'm going to go back and read it again. Pretty powerful stuff.

Madame DeFarge said...

Yes, this is one of your finest posts. I recall seeing my grandfather in the hospital morgue and comparing how healthy he looked compared to the rather ghastly features of the attendant. It didn't scare me - it felt right to see him one last time and I'd have regretted it enormously.

Megan said...

I really don't know how to articulate my feelings about this post. It definitely did not leave me unmoved!

Leah said...

Brian: I think possibly this sort of memento mori is not for everyone...anyway, I was thinking about it in the day since I wrote this, and I've come to that conclusion!

Betsy: I have to say that the experience of being at a deathbed changes you somehow, fundamentally--much like giving birth to a child changes you! It's weird how the two are oddly similar...

willow: that's sort of exactly where my mind was going...but possibly as I said to Brian, it's not to everyone's taste. I'm not even sure I would like such a portrait, were I to have one in my possession! But I'm imagining I would.

LadyCat: indeed the veil is thin, I agree...and that red bag must have a very strong resonance for you! I'm sorry about that.

Leah said...

savannah: you know, I worried a little when I posted this--that it might bring up strong feelings for some people, and not necessarily in a good way. I did think of you particularly, and a few others as well, people I know have suffered great losses--and was hoping it wouldn't stir unwelcome emotions--but if the tears were okay, I'm glad. Thanks for your comment.

xoxo

Leah said...

Hazel: you're right about that--we do let others, professionals, take care of the death process--and truly I understand why people do that, it can be too much otherwise. But what you say about the wakes and "laying out"s, and other people spoke of that too--those events were a way to accomplish some of what I'm talking about here. In Judaism, we don't really have that--the body is buried quickly--so the helpful tradition just isn't there.

Ponita: you have the same thoughts that I have on this topic. Thanks for telling about your experience. It really can never be forgotten in the details, can it? In a funny way, 20 years isn't a very long time...

jenny: yes, it's wonderful that you used that word, "beautiful," to describe your father's passing. I would use that word too. But it is so rare for someone to look past the fear and discover that in a death transition. Thanks for your comment!

Christine: I used to think those photos macabre--but have a different perspective now. Although, as I commented to someone else, I'm not really sure I'd want one...

Leah said...

Pat: I used to think of the dead body as a shell, as you say, but strangely after being with dad at the end, it didn't seem that way--at least not right away. As if his spirit lingered there for awhile...

The practice of children attending a dead body seems a little troubling--and other people mentioned that here as well, as being hard to take--I know as a child, I would have found it very disturbing.

Tom: no, most people wouldn't have that first thought to grab the camera, LOL!! Maybe if given more time though...

mago: I looked up the Friedell, and was intrigued, although I read about its influence, I could only find one copy available, and not in translation...by the way, have you ever seen a book called "Wisconsin Death Trip"? Very very interesting primary source material.

Pat: that must have been very very hard as a child! Interesting to know that people took casket pictures. I wonder what they did with them?

Queenmother: it is really fascinating how many people as children viewed, touched, came into close proximity with the dead! I never did, as a child. I never even saw a dead body until I was 19...

Vicki: caught up in the moment of writing and thinking and feeling, as I was when I wrote this post, it made sense to me with a strong clarity...now, a day later, I'm not so sure anymore...

Fox: thank you for your comment! I would have been totally fascinated/willing/delighted to read a much longer musing from you, but I understand not wanting to...

Princess: I appreciate very much your attitude: that the moment of transition is special and, as you say, "humbling." It is indeed.

And you raise an interesting point of the historical context of the death portraits--photography being new and novel, they loved to use it as much as possible! What is interesting is that, with the ubiquity of photography nowadays (digital cameras, even cell phone cameras) there aren't more death photos!

Leah said...

Jimmy: no need to add anything! Just your presence is grand. And you're right, the memories can be very painful, and very very hard to shake. All one can do is try to make sense of them, try to fit them into the context of one's life.

Ronda: you put it in a very interesting way, and I agree--that that moment is not used often as well as it could be to give honor. I guess panic, fear, sorrow, can all drive that away. The hospice workers gave us excellent advice for after he died. They said, "take your time. Don't let anyone rush you." They were right.

Kylie: that is a funny sort of complaint, isn't it? That was kind of you to do that. Did they request it, or was it something you thought of on your own? Those photographs could, I imagine, make things more real for people. And in doing so, help them to come to terms...but maybe I'm talking too flippantly, I don't know...

lettuce: that's exactly how I felt at the funeral parlor, too. It was our last chance to see dad, and I could hardly stand to leave his poor dead body...

Karen: I agree with you completely. I truly believe that we, as a society, need to handle death, and especially mourning, in healthier, more open ways. It's so much worse the way it is now, so isolating and strange and terrible.

Mme: I always felt I too would have regretted terribly not seeing all my grandparents after their deaths--and I did see each of them--it helped, honestly, to be with the bodies in each case.

Megan: no need to articulate feelings, I've blathered on enough for all of us, LOL!!! Thank you for reading and commenting xo

kylie said...

i thought of it on my own and i hoped it would help make it real for them. i dont know if it helped, sometimes people dont want "real"

Leah said...

Kylie, you're so right, some people don't want real. Sometimes I don't want real!!! In fact, this post was probably too real for me! I've had to watch a lot of sitcoms to come down from it...

Matthew said...

This is my first visit. Kylie recommended I stop by and I'm really pleased she did.

My wife went through a mourning jewellry stage. Thankfully she steered clear of the death portraits, although they are compelling viewing, I think.

Anyway, charmed to meet you. I'll be back.

mapstew said...

You have a beautiful soul dear Leah.

xxx

mago said...

Sorry, I never heared about the book you mention. But I will get it. Thank you for the tip!

Alan Burnett said...

What an interesting post which has introduced me to a whole category of photography I knew nothing about. I visited the link - didn't everyone! - and found the piece quite fascinating.

Leah said...

Matthew: welcome! I have to go immediately and find out what mourning jewelry is...

Leah said...

Stew: you have no idea how much that comment means to me.

Leah said...

mago: it's really really cool, that book (Wisconsin Death Trip). I just finally got myself a copy and can't stop looking at it.

Alan: I'm glad you found it so interesting! Aside from my personal feelings about it, I quite agree: it is fascinating.

xl said...

The death photos of children always bother me the most.

Liza said...

I remember the pictures being in an album, I remember there were flowers in her hands, and I remember the casket being white.
She looked like she was sleeping to me at the time, which is probably why the photos didn't freak me out.
My grandmother had issues with alcohol, and perhaps this was my aunt's way of seeing her at peace?

nick said...

It's interesting how both mourning jewellery and mourning dress have died out. I was reading that in the 19th century widows wore special mourning clothes for up to four years after the death. To discard them too early was thought not only disrespectful to the deceased but suggestive of potential sexual promiscuity. Extraordinary!

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muralimanohar said...

I have had so little death in my life, I honestly have no idea how I will handle it. I've had a few friends go, including little children, but they weren't close enough to me to dent my heart. Heck, my Grandma is still going strong at 96. It's like a foreign world to me. Thank you for painting such a vivid picture for me.