Scrapping the Dead

Admittedly, defining what I do as "scrapping the dead" casts a gloomy pall on my favorite past time. However, as I complete heritage album #13, I feel I'mfd building a closer relationship with the dead than with the living. That isn't a bad thing, after all the dead are infinitely, endlessly agreeable, and the living... not so much.

You're probably not wondering about my fascination with dead people and the photos they left behind, but I'll fill you in anyway. The details are hazy, but I believe it dates back to my days as a student in a girl's boarding school in Minnesota. While weekending with my roommate's family we sorted through a box of old family photos and happened upon some pictures of children who were resting in boxes. I had an uneasy feeling about those boxes. And then, her mother told us the truth about them.  In a tone suggesting she thought we were both silly for not knowing, she uttered the word, "casket."

That single word shattered my paradigm about dead people and their post-life activities. Granted, in sixteen years of life my mental models concerning death weren't well developed. They were overshadowed with images of angels delicately lifting the dead person to heaven while the family stood by quietly weeping. Obviously, that level of naivete couldn't last long. But replacing that image with one of greiving relatives snapping photos of their dearly departed was quite a jolt.

Later, I learned that the curious practice of photographing the dead dated back to Victorian times. People who couldn't afford to have a portrait painted of their loved ones could afford to have them photographed. Photography was still expensive and, often a post-mortem photograph is the only picture of the person. Multiple prints were sometimes purchased and mailed to distant family members. (Can you imagine opening that piece of mail? - "It's a letter from Uncle Henry... he doesn't look well....")

Strangely, not everyone was satisfied having the last photo of their loved ones in a position of repose. Some chose to prop them up in more life-like poses. It's pretty easy to spot a post-mortem photo if the subject appears to be sleeping in a casket; it's much more challenging to identify signs of life (or death) if the deceased is propped in a chair. Thankfully, the Victorians didn't have camcorders or this practice of making the dead appear life-like could have taken a gruesome turn.

I do not own a single post-mortem photograph.  I did sort carefully through every old picture in our family photobox hoping to find one. As I scrutinized every image for tell-tale signs of death, (sunken eyes, an unnatural positioning of limbs, a vacant expression etc.,) curiosity grew into obsession with all of these people who were my heritage.

Working together, my sister and I are gradually transforming the old box of pictures into scrapbooks for all of our neices, nephews, and children. Pictures by themselves eventually become never-to-be-solved-mysteries. Scrapbooks, on the other hand, communicate the essence of family across the generations and illustrate the blessed ties that bind us together through the ages.

This is one of 2 two-page layouts to be completed in a worshop that will be held May 9th. Look here for more information.