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Facing Death

June 2024
3min read

Our ancestors look gravely and steadily upon things that we cannot

In the course of this lethal century, death has been rendered increasingly abstract—a choreographed plunge on the television screen, the punch of a red button in a bomber or a computer game, a statistic in a column of print. The constant flicker of electronic sounds and images that surround us constitutes a mental environment as insulating as the buzzing belief systems of animism, Islam, or medieval Christianity. As a domestic reality, at least in the Western world, dying has been eased out the door—sent off to the hospital or the nursing home, and the corpse dispatched straight to the mortician, who is handsomely paid for performing his magic out of sight. Open-coffin funerals, the norm in my boyhood, have all but vanished in Protestant middle-class circles. Men and women not involved in mortuary, medical, or police work can now lead full, long lives without ever having to see, let alone touch, a corpse. So Twelvetrees Press, in its black-jacketed, beautifully produced volume entitled Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America, has managed to come up with a book that, in our hard-to-shock age, is truly disturbing and repellent—a book we open with difficulty, though there is little but stillness and tenderness within, and a mood of grieving love.

Sleeping Beauty presents over seventy photographs of the dead or dying from 1842 to 1925, with a few black-clad live mourners included. As the book’s organizer and editor, Dr. Stanley B. Burns, informs us in his preface:

“Postmortem photography, photographing a deceased person, was a common practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These photographs were often the only ones taken of their subjects and much pride and artistry went into them. It is astounding that although postmortem photographs make up the largest group of nineteenth-century American genre photographs, they are largely unseen, and unknown.”


More than half of the examples in this collection are of children. In some the dead child, stiff as a doll with rigor mortis, is posed in the arms of a parent. Some photographs clearly show the effects of dehydration and malnutrition produced by a host of unchecked and maltreated diseases—cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery, diphtheria, scarlet fever, measles. One especially painful pair shows a child before death, gazing from his pillow, and after, with a gravely straight parting and stiffly held lips. Where the photographer has been exceptionally successful in creating a lifelike appearance, we are disturbed by our own assent to sentimentality’s denial of the undeniable.


The common man and woman of the nineteenth century had no choice but to face death. Until the work of Pasteur and Lister in the 1860s, the microbes of disease ranged uncomprehended and unchallenged. Child mortality ran from 30 to 50 percent. Epidemics often wiped out all the young of a family. More than one in thirty mothers died in childbirth, and a soldier was ten times likelier to die of disease than in battle. In rural isolation the body had to be prepared for burial by the family. The front parlor of lower-middle-class homes was devoted to funerary rites; its association with death was so strong that a deliberate fiat of the Ladies’ Home Journal around 1910 renamed it the “living room.” When, with the new century, outside establishments began to handle these rites, they were called funeral “parlors.” “During the 1920s,” states one of Dr. Burns’s informative back-of-the-book captions, “formal postmortem photography disappeared in mainstream middle-class America.” It had never been a recourse of the rich, who could afford to pay portrait painters to memorialize them.

An epigraph in Sleeping Beauty quotes La Rochefoucauld: “One can no more look steadily at Death than at the sun.” But it is not merely the fact of death that we modern viewers want to blink away, as we look at these photographs; it is the ambiance of our ancestors’ life, the piety-wreathed rigors it visited upon its men in their stovepipe suits and its women in their sleek and severe chignons. How much labor seems laid to rest in a snaggle-toothed, sleepy-eyed corpse with tied hands from 1843, or in a woman, from the same year, with a trail of postmortem blood disfiguring her profile. The photographers’ aesthetic effort to prop the corpses into lifelike positions strikes us as monstrously misplaced; we are reminded of the makers of wax effigies, or of the embalmer Mr. Joyboy, in Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, who massages smiles into the faces of the corpses being sent on to his loved one, the cosmetician Miss Thanatogenos. The macabre could be defined as animated death, death that does not act dead. A daguerreotype like Older Girl Seated on Loveseat affects us not only with pathos but with terror, she appears so close, with her awkward hands and bloody nostril, to moving.


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.

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