Blogs Are Stupid

Doesn't anyone believe in Dear Diary anymore? What happened to the joy of putting actual pen to paper? And why does every ordinary Jane and John think they can write well enough to burden the world with their scribblings? It’s a mystery that badly needs solving. My first entry contains my thoughts about blogging and will set your expectations. The rest will probably be stream of consciousness garbage, much like you’ll find on any other blog. Perhaps we will both come away enlightened.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Death Becomes Me

(WARNING: This post contains images and content that may be disturbing to sensitive individuals, or those who have lost a child or other loved one recently. Please read at your own risk.)

I have a confession to make.

I am absolutely fascinated by death culture, lore, and practices.

I think it probably has to do with the fact that I have no concrete beliefs about what happens to our souls after we die. I don't believe in a literal heaven and hell. It's far too simplistic a concept and I can't help thinking it was born of the need to control and manipulate wayward followers, as well as to discourage debate and free thought.

But as to what does happen?? I really don't know. The idea of reincarnation appeals to me, because the thought of simply not being scares the hell (no pun intended) out of me. But logic doesn't allow me to put any real credence into reincarnation as religious dogma.

So anyway.

Autopsy shows? Love 'em. True Crime novels? I devour 'em. Murder mysteries? Eh, not so much, unless they're really unique and interesting like Silence of the Lambs, The Bone Collector, or Cabinet of Curiosities.

It's the real life murder mysteries such as this or so called miracles such as this that really fascinate me. They are so much more interesting and poignant.

(WARNING: The following links contain images that my be disturbing. Please use discretion if you find images of dead bodies upsetting.)

I would love to visit the tombs in Egypt, the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo Italy, or the Guanajuato Museum in Mexico.

I am dying to read Wisconsin Death Trip. But it's a rare and hot item and folks are usually willing to pay more for it than I can afford. I came close to winning a copy once, but I was sniped at the last minute. I think I'm going to put it on my Christmas list this year, and just not worry about how weird my family finds it.

But I have devoured tomes such as Jessica Mitford's "The American Way of Death" and Mary Roach's "Stiff"

PBS aired a new documentary last week called "The Undertaking" that I've recorded. I'm chomping at the bit to watch, but I'm determined to do it in peace and quiet while the kids are in school. I plan to read Thomas Lynch's book of the same name as well.

By far my most profound and undying fascination is with post mortem photography, particularly that of chidren and infants. I've been called "disturbed" and "sick" because of my interest in them.

Granted, the individuals who made these imprecations were intent on villifying me at all costs, but still. I think it's a pretty commonly held belief that people who are interested in death culture are ghouls.

But with these photos, it is not the death of the subject that I find so engaging, but rather, the love and reverence with which they have been prepared for their eternal rest. Many of them are unspeakably beautiful. Some of them are haunting. And yes, some of them are undeniably disturbing and tragic.

But they are all a window into the mind of a grieving parent, spouse, sibling or friend as well as a glimpse into the past; America in it's youth, life in a simpler time.

Below are several examples taken from Paul Frecker's site.

He has a huge collection of post mortem photographs. I find them anything but horrifying. In every one, the baby or child has been carefully arrayed, meticulously groomed, and lovingly laid out. They hold flowers or a beloved toy, or they are covered by a favorite blanket. Sometimes they are cradled by a grieving parent. Sometimes they lie in elaborate coffins.

That these children were loved is indisputable. That they will be desperately missed is painfully evident. The death toilette is the last time the parent will tend to their child. I can scarcely imagine the pain of such a thing.

In those days, people did not have the luxury of taking scads and scads of candid photographs as parents can now. In many cases, the post mortem photo was the only one they would ever have of their cherished child, and so, they went to great lengths to make them beautiful.

Can you dispute their success?

Are these images horrifying or macabre?

Do you feel compelled to turn away?

Or do you find yourself aching to smooth down a silken strand of hair, straighten a snowy hem, caress a tender cheek?

Today death is a more circumspect event. We would not think of keeping a corpse in our home, we would not think of preparing the body ourselves. Some of us can scarcely stomach the thought of touching a body, much less holding it in a tender embrace for a photo.

But why?

Death is a natural event in a cycle that has been turning since the beginning of time. Why do we fear it so?

I can't answer that. If I could, I would be able to confront my own demons and banish the cold dark fingers of apprehension that skip up and down my spine whenever I think of my own death or that of someone I love.

I think that I think I can't survive the loss. But these photos prove otherwise. And they comfort me.

Maybe it's because they are a testament to the fact that people survive and life goes on, even after horrible, aching loss. Maybe it's the knowledge that although things change, and life changes, the ferocity of a parent's love for their child is timeless.

Whomever said "Death is the Final Frontier" was certainly right. I wonder if we will ever find a way to dispel the mystery and quiet our fears.

In the meantime, I indulge my fascination and hope that someday, I will come to terms with my own mortality.

I have to believe it's not an entirely unfounded hope


  • At 6:06 PM, Blogger J. Denae said…

    I have a friend whose child spent his entire life (19 days) in the NICU. Yhe only poictures she has of him where she is actually holding him are the ones taked after he died. A lot of people were put off by that, but she has them framed and on display in her house... just like I have pictures of Bean as a baby framed and on display in mine. She said that the fact that he is dead does not mean that he was not her son and that she did not love him. It's sad, but ultimately I think it was a healthy thing for her.

  • At 6:06 PM, Blogger J. Denae said…

    Wow... typos much?? Sorry about that.

  • At 6:42 PM, Blogger flutter said…

    I am preternaturally disposed to death and fascination with it. I was studying to be a forensic scientist. The thought of a child dying only upsets me in the sense of innocence interrupted, the feeling of unfairness. But those photos, while incredibly sad were also beautiful.

  • At 7:32 PM, Blogger Veronica Mitchell said…

    I think one of the most poignant anthropological studies I've ever read was about a small culture where the bereaved mothers made papier-mache babies to carry in place of their deceased child while they were in mourning. I can see the comfort in it.

  • At 7:47 PM, Blogger margalit said…

    Today death is a more circumspect event. We would not think of keeping a corpse in our home, we would not think of preparing the body ourselves. Some of us can scarcely stomach the thought of touching a body, much less holding it in a tender embrace for a photo.

    It's time for you to learn a bit about Judaism and their death rites. You might be amazed to find that we do prepare the body ourselves, that we DO sit by the body until burial, and that we DO touch the body. This isn't even just very religious Jews either. It's a part of our culture and heritage. We use what's called a Chverah Kadisha, which is a group of volunteers that help with the preparation, washing, and dressing of the body. We do not preserve bodies, which is why we do funerals within 24 hours of death. We use plain wooden boxes for caskets, and dress our male bodies in a kittel, a white ritual robe.

  • At 8:20 PM, Blogger Blog Antagonist said…

    Margalit, thank you. I was not familiar with Jewish burial practices so that was very informative for me to read. It strikes me as a very healthy and direct way to deal with the passing of a loved one.

  • At 8:32 PM, Blogger Pgoodness said…

    I wasn't really sure where you were going with this, but I admit I sighed in relief by the end. Those pictures were beautiful, but I honestly couldn't bring myself to click on the links. The one of the little on in the coffin disturbed me, but the others were beautiful. This is an interesting subject to be taken with - I'm not skittish about death or even portraits of the dead; I am merely afraid of the pain that death brings.

  • At 8:36 PM, Anonymous Wendy said…

    It was odd when I went to my MIL's funeral. I have never been in the presence of a dead body, before. It freaked me out. Since then we have had other funerals and while I am never eager to go to the body I am not freaked out.

    I have noticed that while funerals are sad, they bring family and friends together. There is talk about the deceased. There is laughter and tears. After the funerals, everyone gathers at the family's house and there is much laughter with stories of the one who has passed.

    I never questioned bringing my kids to the funerals. There is no big discussion, just simple answers to whatever questions that come up. I think my daughter has a better sense of death than I did at 5 years old.

    You should read up about New Orleans and they way we handle death. It is more of a celebration of the person's life than grieving the lost. If you have never visited the cities of the dead, you shouldn't waste anymore time.

    Those pictures are beautiful, not haunting or disturbing at all.

  • At 8:49 PM, Anonymous midlife mommy said…

    Those photos, while beautiful, made me very sad. I couldn't help but thing about how much anguish their parents must have been feeling at the time the photos were taken. I think about that when I pass by a graveyard -- not about the people at rest, but about all the tears that have been shed.

  • At 11:11 PM, Blogger Terri said…

    This post did not put me off at all though I've buried a child, my first in fact. She was born with a serious heart defect and died four days later. She would have been eleven on November 12.

    At her funeral someone suggested I take pictures of her in the coffin, and I did though I wouldn't have thought to do it of my own accord. I'm so glad I did. They are the only pictures we have of her besides the few we took of her in the hospital; but in the hospital photos she was swollen and covered with tubes and monitors. The coffin photos show a peaceful baby which is how I like to remember her. And I did touch her, and kiss her before they closed the coffin.

    The photos you posted are indeed beautiful but made me very sad for my own lost baby. The sadness, however, does not keep me from looking at my photos periodically; nor did your warning at the beginning of this post stop me from continuing to read. Yes, by the end I was almost overwhelmed by the sadness, but it was a bittersweet sadness.

  • At 11:36 PM, Blogger Mom101 said…

    Oh bummer, blogger ate my awesome comment about how our culture is weird about death and you are the normal one by most standards but that I still can't look at dead baby pictures.

    Also that my Jewish family is apparently way off the mark if what Margalit says is actually true of all Jews. I don't know anyone Jewish who's prepares anything dead except maybe a turkey on Thanksgiving.

    I always know that when I finally get back here I will be forced to think a lot. That's an amazing skill you have.

  • At 1:23 AM, Blogger Phoenix said…

    There is a photographer, whose name I'm forgetting, who takes beautiful photos of stillborn babies or babies who die within a week or so of birth, for their parents. I've seen some and they are wonderful. Sad yes, but beautiful tributes all the same.

    I find it fascinating and a bit odd. But I'm a big fan of crime shows and I have a curiosity about death, that I'm not willing to call morbid.

  • At 9:00 AM, Blogger Avalon said…

    I have a very similar interest to yours. I watched "The Undertaking" last week and called my daughter so she could watch it too. You won't be disappointed, although it is sad. In my years working in the ER, I was one of the few people who never minded preparing a body for the family to see before they were taken to the morgue. I liked knowing that a few minutes of my time might make their final memories of their loved one a bit easier.

  • At 1:07 PM, Anonymous Andrea said…

    I think those pictures are really beautiful, though they break my heart. I have the hardest time with the lives of children being cut short for whatever reason. Sensitive, I guess.

    Which makes my fascination with death, much like yours if maybe more focused on the science part of death and forensics rather than the aspect of what happens to a person when they die, somewhat strange and contradictory. I briefly considered changing careers to become a CSI or work in a forensics lab, but the expense of a new degree as well as the logistical problem of not being in close proximity to a college program that fit the pursuit to my satisfaction put an end to that idea.

    Thank you for this post. It's insightful, respectful, and you're quite right about those photos. They are beautiful.

  • At 2:15 PM, Blogger Natalie said…

    My sophomore year of college I participated in a photographic study one of my friends did. She took pictures of people in a style similar to those old photos but we were set in modern versions of fairytale settings. I don't remember who I was supposed to be but I was in a bathtub. Laying there pretending to be dead was an odd experience but her presentation had a true sense of beauty to it. I see exactly what you mean.

  • At 2:44 PM, Blogger Jenn said…

    They simply made me sad; photographic evidence to add to the knowledge that what I fear the most happens every single day.

    No matter the stories behind them, or the time that has passed since they were taken; still, that once they were alive and innocent and that someone loved them enough to dress them one final time and preserve that memory; that stirs an emotion that I believe transcends time and space.

  • At 9:32 PM, Blogger Amy Y said…

    I think the negative comments come from an ignorant place. Those photos were hauntingly beautiful... I hope I never have to see my child like that, though. Wow.

  • At 11:22 AM, Blogger Mrs. Chicky said…

    They all look like they're sleeping.

    A few months ago I would have been just as fascinated, a few years ago even more so. These days, for good reason, those pictures make my heart ache.

    I think that death is the most fascinating when you a) have little to lose or b) have not experienced that much of it in your lifetime.

  • At 11:42 AM, Blogger Rock the Cradle said…

    Heartbreaking pictures. I want so much to believe they are just asleep. Maybe that is part of the need for these images...a tangible reminder of a child at their most peaceful, an illusion of life.

    It is a "fierce" love that creates these images.

    Now that I'm a mother myself, I understand that love.

  • At 2:58 PM, Blogger MrsNehemiah said…

    I have a friend who lost two babies one just before birth and one a few days after. I know the photos taken have been a comfort to her and her husband.

    the black & white and the color retouched photos are best because the focus is more on the child and less on the fact of death. the unretouched color photos can be a little off-putting.

    I think our culture is desperatly out of touch with so many things Death being a huge one. I think some of our anger as a nation comes from being unable to greive well because we are so far removed from the process of death.

    I helped my aunt dress my grandmother for her burial. it was a profound time for me. It confirmed in me my belief of the existance of the soul. I was mearly attending to my grandmother's shell. the part of her that is her, the part that I love, the part that loves me. was not there. and I have no reason to bielive that her soul does not live on.

    I had no desire to take a death photo of her. it seemed to me that any of the many photos I have of her while she was alive have more Life in them than her empty shell. This could explain why death photos seem (in this day & age) to be relegated to those of Newborn children. we often have many photos of our children & other loved ones, earlier cultures did not.
    another thought provoking post.

    Mrs N

  • At 9:56 PM, Anonymous Stephanie Enders said…

    Hi, If you're obsessed with death then you have to read "My Descent into Death" by Howard Storm. Amazing book. Howard (an atheist and art professor) died on the surgical table.
    They did revive him---now he is a pastor at a church in Ohio. Anyway a very interesting read.


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