- Historic Sites
Our ancestors look gravely and steadily upon things that we cannot
May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
Some of the photographs have an uncanny beauty. Early photography’s principal problem —how to keep its subjects still enough for the necessary long exposure—was here no problem. As the century advanced, and became our own, equipment permitted a wider, more detailed evocation of the funereal display. No bloody trickle or locked joints betray the illusion of luxurious sleep. Flowers, symbols of ephemerality but also of Nature’s lavish capacity for renewal, cushion the corpses and the waxen fact of death; the dead glide into the beyond dressed as if for a wedding or graduation. These photographs approach our own funereal experience and taste and are less alarming than the earlier, cruder attempts to freeze the dead on the edge of life.
The ritual and semiotic systems whereby men shelter themselves from death vary. Our own time, which celebrates the living body—in exercise, diet, gladiatorial games, and pornography—with more frankness and zeal than any culture since the pagan Roman, is very squeamish about the body once dead; we will it to disappear, in closed coffins or the little cardboard urns the crematorium supplies. No longer susceptible to the commercials of sex appeal and consumerism, the body becomes trash. The piety of the previous century clung to the Christian tenet, unemphasized in today’s churches, that the body is the person, with a holy value even when animation ceases. This faith, embodied in these memorial images, tells us more than we want to know about corporeality, and challenges our modern mysticism, the worship of disembodied energy.