Haunted by Photos of the Dead 1.

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In order to spare people great lumps of text I’ve broken the following into smaller sections which I shall eventually post in full but in pieces.

My mother, now in her ninetieth year, told me yesterday that she had hurt her hand. She had been walking through the hallway to her bedroom when she accidentally knocked it against the doorknob. She must have hit it hard because the top layer of skin came off and it was bleeding. When she looked at it more closely she realised that not only had she knocked off the top layer of skin but also the wound was deep. She could see her tendons down to the bone. She took herself to the office in the home where she lives in the hope that a nurse would be on duty.

The staff took one look at my mother’s hand and called an ambulance. My mother thought this unnecessary. She would have happily called a taxi. Still the ambulance came and took her to the clinic where they patched her up. They could not give her stitches because the skin on her hand was too thin. ‘It would tear,’ they said. Instead they pulled a series of tiny strips across the wound, and then bandaged it tight.

‘It hurts a little when I move it in particular ways,’ my mother said, ‘but I can tell it’s healing.’

I had rung to ask my mother a question about the past. I wanted to ask her about the photo of her dead baby, her first-born daughter who had died during the Honger winter of 1945 in Heilo, Holland. I was curious to know how the photo had come about.

My curiosity has been flamed by two books, Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination and the other, Jay Ruby’s Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, a transcript on the nature of post-mortem photography in America, which includes several photos of dead people. A friend recommended the first book; the second, I found by accident in a used books shop. I could not leave the photographs behind.

Gordon is interested in the notion of the things behind things, the things that lie beneath. She takes notice of the thoughts that haunt her even as she is trying as a sociologist to do research on something concrete and ostensibly evident. Whereas Ruby is concerned to ask questions about why we have become so afraid of death, at least in the western world that we no longer take photos of our loved ones after death as mementos, or if we do take photos, they are kept private, not shared with the public, for fear that the owners might be considered ghoulish. (Ruby, 1995, p. 161)

I struggle to understand why so many things have become unspeakable, that it gets harder and harder to remember. But these days my mother’s memory for certain past events has a sharpness and clarity it never had before. My mother’s thin skin is a sign to me that soon she will be gone and with it her voice, I must catch her memories before it is too late, even as her memories are full of gaps and shadows. I will hitch her memories to mine and look for signs in between, look for the haunting to uncover something of her past.

I follow in Gordon’s direction. She describes how one day she was on her way to a conference to present a paper. She does not spell out the topic but how she had found herself distracted away from her topic by thoughts of a woman whose image she had discovered as ‘missing’ from the photo of a conference group in Berlin several years ago. According to Gordon’s research, the woman, Sabina Spielrein should have been present in that photo, but she was not there. Spielrein is a little known psychoanalyst from Freud’s day, little known despite the fact that she was the first to hypothesise on the nature of the death instinct.

My mother is describing her wounded hand and I cringe at the thought that her skin is so thin it cannot withstand a simple knock, the sort of knock that would leave most of us with a red mark, at best; a bruise, at worst.

‘They peeled the skin back over the hole,’ my mother said. ‘It had rolled itself up and they dragged it back over the wound.’ The image left me squeamish. Why do we wince when people describe their injuries, their own or another’s injuries in graphic detail?

In time I asked my mother the question that had prompted my phone call. She could not remember who took the photo, but she suspected it was the neighbour of her cousin in whose house she had been staying. She told me again the story she has told me many times before, always at my instigation. When I was little I wondered that she could stay dry-eyed in the telling. She seemed so calm, when I had imagined that were I the mother of a dead baby I would find it hard to go on living.

‘It is harder’, my mother said in this most recent conversation to lose an older child. ‘When a child dies so young, you have fewer memories. It takes far less time to get over it.’

For my mother, memories keep the idea of her lost child alive but given that this baby was only five months old, her life so short, there are few memories attached to her.

Still there was a catch in my mother’s voice as she spoke to me over the phone, as if she were re-remembering the feeling of her loss all that time back.

As long as I can remember my mother has checked herself; kept her tears to herself; put a full stop onto her feelings by offering some trite homily, some staving-off comment:
‘Well, that was that. No use dwelling on these things.’

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50 Comments on Haunted by Photos of the Dead 1.

  1. Nancy Devine
    February 12, 2010 at 11:35 pm (8 years ago)

    my late grandmother had a book of black and white photos and history that she kept out for display on an ottoman. in the book, there were several pictures of bodies in open caskets with family surrounding them. while i found the photos kind of scary and odd, they made an impression on me…which i'm not sure i've ever understood.

    Reply
  2. LimesNow
    February 13, 2010 at 12:54 am (8 years ago)

    The American Civil War is probably the most divisive event our country has sufferd and the fiery pain is still felt by many Americans. The 19th century American photographer, Mathew Brady, documented the war traveling from one encampment to another and many, many of his fine photos still exist.

    In the 1990s, the documentary film maker, Ken Burns, made an epic series called The Civil War. Throughout each episode are featured hundreds of the Brady photographs showing soldiers both living and dead, political figures of the era, army camps, battlegrounds, civilians.

    I am so drawn to these pictures, I own The Civil War and watch it about once a year. "Look! That's how women of the day dressed." Some of the images are funny – strutting young men setting out on a terrible adventure. The Abraham Lincoln shots are fascinating, as are those of the buildings of the time.

    But it is the pictures of the fallen soldiers that are meaningful to me. Sometimes it is obvious they were badly wounded before death. Sometimes they look simply as if they lay down and went to sleep. Sometimes one can look into their now dead eyes. But there is a quiet calm to these pictures, likely the only photograph ever made of some of them.

    You might enjoy these links on your topic. I hope you don't find this too dark, and I realize these are not death pictures that would touch one personally . . . but I wonder why they feel so personal to me.

    Reply
  3. steven
    February 13, 2010 at 2:03 am (8 years ago)

    elisabeth – the words describing your mother's hurt hand brought to mind a moment in my own experiencing with my mother's mother. we were in a room just the two of us. it was the first time i had that sense that we were two adults and not "nana" and "steven". without being asked she painted an oral landscape of herself as a four year-old. it was vivid and clear and matter-of-fact and yet it was an entire world unfolded like an old carpet for us both to stand on and look around. her body was failing here but her eyes were absolutely clear blue and those words are still in my head and heart as i write this. keep your mother's words. steven

    Reply
  4. Poetikat
    February 13, 2010 at 2:04 am (8 years ago)

    I do hope your mother's hand will heal quickly, Elisabeth.
    Such a coincidence that you should write about this topic as my poem for Theme Thursday this week is a rondeau dealing with the superstitions around death and in the comments I brought up the practice of photographing the deceased.

    Kat

    Reply
  5. Ocean Girl
    February 13, 2010 at 2:39 am (8 years ago)

    My mother-in-law just turned 91 and she is my role model, in how she dealt with losses.

    I rely on the wisdom of the wise like your Mom.

    Reply
  6. Annotated Margins
    February 13, 2010 at 6:50 am (8 years ago)

    A wonderful and touching post.

    I have a friend and former guitar student who is trying to get from her mother all the lyrics and melodies that her mother used to sing with her country band back in the late 40's and the 50's. She wants to continue her mother's voice.

    I told my friends that she is already continuing her mother's voice, no matter what lyrics she sings.

    Reply
  7. Anthony Duce
    February 13, 2010 at 7:43 am (8 years ago)

    Some wonderful observations. I wonder about the confirmation of death.
    I watch the group of older artist I paint with talk about death.When they hear of someone who died they insist on all the details about how the death took place. I can hear a fear in their voices and in the silence as well. Us who are younger in the group will feel sorrow for the person living who has lost the person being discussed and want to comfort. The older seem more interested in the death itself.

    Reply
  8. Elisabeth
    February 13, 2010 at 8:18 am (8 years ago)

    Jay ruby's book with it's may photos f dead bodies is totally mesmerising to me. I look at the pictures and I find it hard to imagine that these people are dead.

    They are so well presented, they look as if they are only sleeping. and the live people sitting nearby have such straight faces, no one weeps, though all seem grim, it's hard to believe they are with a dead loved one. We treat death differently these days. Thanks, Nancy.

    Lesley I looked at the link you posted here. Ihanks. It is fairly awe inspiring. Years ago they showed a series of documentaries on the American Civil War here in Australia and I could barely watch it. Such a terrible loss of life.

    But that's war for you, almost a total disregard for life.

    Reply
  9. Gretta
    February 13, 2010 at 8:55 am (8 years ago)

    I remember that photo well, Lis. And I remember the piece you wrote about that baby's death.

    I'm like your mother. It's almost as if I can't be bothered to talk about my losses. I know I'll only get sad and then it will take days to calm down again. I keep matter of fact and distanced so I'm not dealing with the aftermath long after the questioner has moved on.

    My mother's skin was like tissue paper in her last years.

    Reply
  10. Elisabeth
    February 13, 2010 at 9:23 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks Steven for this portrait of your grandmother as a four year old. My mother has all her wits about her, even as her body fails her, like your grandmother, no doubt. I write to remember.

    What an uncanny coincidence, Kat. It reminds me of the notion of haunting, the things we cannot see, the things that move us bit we do not know what they are, we can only feel their rubles and then imagine. Thanks.

    Reply
  11. Elisabeth
    February 13, 2010 at 10:09 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Ocean girl. I haven't always considered my mother 'wise' though she is generous and full of good will despite her foibles. Even she herself acknowledges her difficulties. They go beyond old age. I will never forget her.

    Mike. It's lovely that your friend wants to remember her mother's songs and voice. And your response to your friends about her success is touching. Thanks.

    Hi Anthony. I'm fascinated by your artist group's response to death. I have been part of a writing group for many years. It came as a shock for us all when one of our group members died. It reminds us all of our mortality. Thanks.

    Reply
  12. Elisabeth
    February 13, 2010 at 10:13 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Gretta. I was thinking of you when I put up this post. I will never forget our time together and the sharing of our respective stories. I'm humbled by your experience, by your courage in surviving it and by your beautiful writing in response to it.

    Reply
  13. Ann ODyne
    February 13, 2010 at 10:58 am (8 years ago)

    dear Elisabeth – I won't make you wince with any of my grisly stories (but I could). You also will pass 90, so prepare now by eating right.

    Years ago I had a book of 19thC photographs called Wisconsin Death Trip. It was the custom to stand the open coffin vertical for these pictures. It wasn't creepy.

    Your mother's resignation to her awful loss in Holland in 1945 must be viewed in the WW2 context.
    Thanks for another great post.

    Reply
  14. Jim Murdoch
    February 13, 2010 at 11:32 am (8 years ago)

    I can't recall expressing any great interest in anything dead. I certainly never took photographs of either of my parents after they died nor did I go to view the bodies; they were no longer Mum and Dad. I was present when my mum died but I wasn’t expecting it. Dad died of a heart attack and by the time I got home his body was gone. My brother and sister went to the funeral home to see Mum’s body. My brother said he regretted choosing to do so. I have no idea if anyone went to see Dad’s corpse.

    I wrote a short story which ends with a man taking photos of his dead mother. The opinions expressed aren’t really mine but it’s the only time I’ve ever thought seriously about the subject so I thought you might like to read what I wrote. Neither of my parents objected to having their photo taken.

    ‘Camera Obscura’ excerpt:

    Probably the most difficult pictures I ever had to take were actually of my mother. She was dead at the time so it was a relatively straightforward shoot. The undertaker let me in and, to the man’s credit, never expressed the slightest sign of surprise when he saw my bags. I suppose in that line of business you get used to stifling your true feelings. I think for me that was when I began to realise where my photography was going. They used to make death masks of the greats. I remember seeing one of Beethoven and Chopin too I believe. I wasn’t just capturing a fleeting moment that was gone and forever lost otherwise; I was acknowledging the limitations of humans: it takes us time to see things, sometimes a very long time. My mother never liked to be photographed when she was alive. She would always object to my pointing “that thing” at her. Yes, take pictures of people if you have to, just not of her. There were times when she would pose – if an event were to be recorded – but even then she loathed taking centre stage. The best I could hope for was to capture her in a group shot and edit out the rest in the darkroom and I only got away with that the once and, much as she berated me for it, the picture still sat on her mantelpiece till the day she died. There were no flies on my mum. When I was a child I looked at her with a child’s eyes. Now I am a man and things are starting to come together. That would not be so easy for me if I only had a man’s faulty memory to rely on.

    No one ever saw that last set. None were ever published though they were among my best work. I collected them for myself under the title “Still Life” and I look at each of those metaphysical moments faithfully on her birthday every year. I’m not sure what I’m looking for but as I get older they seem easier to look at and the looking makes more sense.

    If I could find the words then I would. I can’t. It’s why I’m a photographer and not a poet. I wish I could tell you what I see when I look at those prints but I wouldn’t know where to start. There’s truth there. I just don’t know what kind.

    Maybe, in time.

    Reply
  15. Caio Fernandes
    February 13, 2010 at 11:41 am (8 years ago)

    i am sorry for your mother's recent acident and old loss .
    death…. it is weird for me to see how the old europeans here in brazil as my grandparents , and contemporareans europeans and anglo -saxons handle with this subject . i think it is turned in a huge issue . my generation here in Brazil sees death in a totaly difernt way .
    first because of the kardecist influence in our lifes that is very strong , impossible to avoid even for who has totaly diferent religions .
    second because we a the result of the ones that survived the torture aand murders of the 60's and 70's dictatorship .
    tird because in my generation , drugs , aids and urban violence mayde we lose our best frieds and young relatives when we were stil teenagers .
    i remember there was a time , i was 17, 20 years old , i went at least 2 times a month to a funeral of some friend .
    all this tragedy mixed with the kardecist espiritism notions make me get very calm about death and see it in a so natural way that i remember the reaction of strangers when they heard me talking about death .
    hahah!! that is the reason i don't talk about this anymore . people think i am heartless or bad .
    there was just one death in my life that changed me , that meant a lot to me .

    thank you Elisabeth .
    i don't know how i have missed your last post !
    i am glad i am here agin .

    Reply
  16. jabblog
    February 13, 2010 at 11:45 am (8 years ago)

    I believe people deal with the pain in life in different ways. Some talk endlessly, repeating the same phrases, until the hurt has been absorbed, processed and healing can begin. It may be one person they speak to, or many. Others find it easier to shut away their feelings, not able or wishing to disclose them except infrequently in passing remarks. Yet others have private discourse with themselves, reliving the experience/s until they become almost commonplace and have lost the power to wound.
    Sometimes it's NOT good to talk.

    Reply
  17. melissashook
    February 13, 2010 at 1:04 pm (8 years ago)

    Thank you, Elisabeth….

    Reply
  18. Kass
    February 13, 2010 at 1:26 pm (8 years ago)

    Elisabeth – I took several pictures of my father in his coffin. The rest of my family thought I was suffering from a disorder. That was 13 years ago before I was a pic-packing obsessive (of course, my family still thinks I have a disorder). I just had to do it. I haven't really analyzed my motives until now. I think it was part of the denial process in grieving. But he looks so good – he can't be gone – kind of thing. The movie American Beauty, handles the stark allurement of death and our fascination with it as you so eloquently have in this post. Thank you for understanding.

    Reply
  19. Pam Morrison
    February 13, 2010 at 7:36 pm (8 years ago)

    It's taken me a very long time to articulate – even notice and name some of the feelings that were powerfully brushed over in my growing up years. My own struggle to do so left me impatient and intolerant of some of the blithe dismissal of what I saw as the Real feelings, the Real truth. What I'm back in touch with, as I read your post, is the vulnerability – now and then – of that generation who did things differently. We all figure our ways to survive..our ways to be healthy. Sometimes they are radically different. Perhaps that's OK… (Thanks for your blog Elisabeth. Looking forward to reading more.)

    Reply
  20. Mim
    February 13, 2010 at 11:14 pm (8 years ago)

    Why do we wince? It may be the wince of empathy.

    My mother had a similar accident, leaving a wound that eventually healed. I remember how quickly my son's cuts healed when he was young: it seemed like magic.

    We live so much longer than our ancestors who daily coped with death and disease. Walter Benjamin wrote about the rooms in modern life in which no one had died. They lacked a deep atmosphere, like rooms in which there was no patina.

    I was with my husband's mother when she died in hospice, and with my mother's still-warm body shortly after she died. Her death flooded me with grief.

    Reply
  21. BwcaBrownie
    February 14, 2010 at 2:21 am (8 years ago)

    our dear pal Middle Child has used old photos of him to work through a year of serious grief over the death in hospital of her husband. Their intense love was fully documented on her blog well before incompetence, indifference and neglect murdered him.
    Many bloggers have continued their sympathy for her through all of this – a testament to how many lovely blogging people can be kind to a Virtual Person.

    Reply
  22. Maggie May
    February 14, 2010 at 5:39 am (8 years ago)

    This was just wonderful to read. The complexity of your emotional life is so clear in your words. I just finished reading Philip Roth's 'Patrimony' and I suggest it for you. I read it in one fell swoop because it was marvelous. It is the memoir of the last year of his father's life, but not depressing at all, somehow.

    I remember so well the thin skin of my Grandmother Elizabeth's hands and arms. She often had quite upsetting breaks in skin along her arms and on top her hands.

    Reply
  23. Elisabeth
    February 14, 2010 at 5:41 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, AnnODyne. I doubt that I'll make it to ninety. I have my mother's constitution to some extent but I'm not such a 'clean' liver as she. She was still riding her pushbike until well in her late sixties early seventies, whereas I never exercise at all, bar the occasional walk and the trip up and down stairs almost daily to fetch and carry after my daughters. Though you're right my mother's life must have been impacted upon by the war both physiologically and physically. Certainly my father was. He died at 65, a mere spring chicken, but he lived hard.

    Thanks, Jim. I'm surprised at your ostensible lack of interest in anyone dead. Perhaps it's the Catholicism in me. We were forever viewing dead archbishops and the like in coffins at the cathedral from an early age.

    You may have been interested in subterranean ways, especially given the excerpt from your amazing short story here. Thanks for this.

    Ironically your hero can't find words. He's a photographer who can only see and represent what he says in pictures and you are the poet with the words to describe that which you the person Jim take little interest in yourself. Fascinating.

    Reply
  24. Elisabeth
    February 14, 2010 at 5:49 am (8 years ago)

    Caio, I have a few colleagues psychoanalysts who fled from Argentina during the terrible 70s to which you refer. They have told us a little about what life was like. No wonder you in Brazil view death differently from us.

    I do not think you are heartless at all, Caio. I think you are a person who captures the essence of life and death through his work and this makes life more bearable for those of us who have the opportunity to enjoy your art. Thank you.

    Thanks, Jablog. I agree with you about the different ways people deal with their painful experiences. I tend to process mine out loud on the page but I know many who prefer to deal with their pain in other ways. It's fine for all of us to express ourselves as best we can as long as we don't further hurt others with that expression, at least not gratuitously.

    Thanks for your thanks, Melissa. I hope my writing here is not too close to the bone, pardon the pun.

    Reply
  25. BwcaBrownie
    February 14, 2010 at 5:52 am (8 years ago)

    re longevity – take The Queen's sedentary Mother as your hero – never ever find out where the washing machine is.

    Reply
  26. Elisabeth
    February 14, 2010 at 6:06 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Kass. My mother tells me that having photos of her dead loved ones is the only way to get to their funeral in some instances when she lives on the other side of the world.

    When I was little I noticed often the black edged envelopes that came from Holland and signified that another relative or friend had died. My mother opened these envelopes with apprehension and pain.

    Thanks, Pam. I agree with you about how differently different generations deal with their experiences, particularly those that are painful. In fact we all deal with our vulnerabilities in different ways.

    There are universalities but it's part of our uniqueness to approach things in our own ways. Hence the endless fascination many of us have with one another. We learn so much simply through hearing each others' stories and ways of dealing with life.

    Thanks, Mim. I agree, a wince is a mark of empathy. I often feel that way wen someone describes something awful or when i see it. I hold y breath and draw my body in, as if by way of protection.

    As Byatt wrote something in her novel, Still Life about the awfulness of the first wound on a baby's skin. I thought of this when I read about the speed you describe in your son's healing.

    It takes ages for old skin to heal. It's one of the things I dread. Already my wounds take longer to heal than when I was young.

    But strangely I think it's in the reverse when it comes to emotional wounds, insults and the like.

    I think I bounce back more quickly from the 'slings and arrows' than I did when young. How about you?

    Hi Brownie and thanks to you, too. I shall check out Middle Child. The name of her blog fascinates me, as I consider myself a middle child.

    There are extraordinary signs of kindness in the blogoshphere, far more such signs that the trolls offer. Otherwise I suspect we'd all give up.

    I'd like to think the blogosphere is a microcosm of life on the outside. There's more generosity in the world than cruelty. Though there is still plenty of the latter, unfortunately.

    Reply
  27. Jim Murdoch
    February 14, 2010 at 11:20 am (8 years ago)

    Don’t be surprised. No one said a writer had to be fascinated in everything. There are many things that I am incurious about mostly to do with science and the physical world. This is a bad example because I’m sure I did ask, but I was the kind of kid who wouldn’t care why the sky was blue because there was nothing I could do to make it be anything else. I have my chosen beliefs concerning death. I don’t need to know what happens after I die because I’m alive right now. There are those who would argue that knowing might affect how I live my life. Perhaps, but I choose not to know. I’ve never understood those people who read the last page of a book and then go back to the start.

    Reply
  28. christopher
    February 14, 2010 at 4:33 pm (8 years ago)

    Look at this 🙂 In the USA it is said that we have gone to great lengths to keep death under wraps. I think this huge response shows how denial of death is not completely the case when the audience is global.

    I was taught that my overall health depends on breaking my denial of death. I cannot run from or fight what is a natural limit to life, or if you will, one of the doorways to beyond. It is a practice in humility to keep death as near as it actually is.

    You write so well. My mother had that kind of skin at the end and the Coumadin that she was required to take didn't help. Thin skin and not much clotting. I guess it is universal as a part of aging. I am getting that kind of skin now at 64. I can see it happening. It is not that thin yet, not by a decade or more but I can see the changes.

    Reply
  29. Jim Moffitt
    February 14, 2010 at 5:40 pm (8 years ago)

    I was glued to the screen reading your post. Thank you. I'll not be far.

    Reply
  30. Elisabeth
    February 15, 2010 at 8:36 am (8 years ago)

    I'm with you as far as what happens after we die, Jim Murdoch. I don't need to know either. I'm of the view that when we die our bodies disintegrate and our spirit lives on in the memories of those who follow us. That's enough for me.

    I sometimes wish I believed in reincarnation. It would be a great comfort to think I could get another go at life, especially as I have so much I'd like to do and already I can see that time is running out. Not that those who believe in reincarnation suggest we have a say in the type of next life we get. I gather it's not up to us.
    For me it's a case of having to make the most of what's left. Death is part of life, the end stage as opposed to the beginning and like so many other aspects of life, it's tough, but I'm sure for some it can be a good enough experience, not perfect perhaps but then nothing is. Including the fact that when you die you're dead.

    Reply
  31. Elisabeth
    February 15, 2010 at 9:48 am (8 years ago)

    Christopher, thanks. You're right about the importance of acknowledging our mortality, hard as it is.

    My mother used to say you can always tell a woman's age by the skin in her neck and by her elbows.

    My mother tends towards vanity. Even now at ninety she refuses to wear sleeveless dresses because she hates her wrinkly arms. She's reluctant to wear glasses for the same reason. They make her look 'older'.

    I hope I do not get to feel so ashamed of something as inevitable as aging.

    Obviously you're working on aging gracefully, too. As I said before, it's inevitable, if we're lucky enough to get there. We can't avoid it, despite all the botox and face lifts that the beautician's tout.

    Reply
  32. Elisabeth
    February 15, 2010 at 9:54 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Jim Moffitt. It's good to hear from you.

    You're about the age of my 'little' brother, judging by your blog. I measure people's ages relative to mine by their approximation to the ages of my siblings. And then I tend to imagine other aspects accordingly.

    Reply
  33. A Cuban In London
    February 15, 2010 at 1:43 pm (8 years ago)

    First of all, I wish your mother better.

    Secondly, what a cracking post. Forget the amount of writing, it's always the content that does it for me (at the moment I'm reading a seven-hundred-odd page book, so I should know). I understand why your mother's memory seems to be better with past events but not recent ones. I think it's to do with how we attune ourselves with what is distant and relevant in our life and discard the minutiae of our current experience. The question Ruby poses is an important one: why not take photos of your dead ones? However, I for one, would not like to do it. I would like there to be the right to photograph your next of kin when they're lying in the coffin, but I reserve the right to grieve privately.

    I also found a symbolism in your mother describing how they peeled the skin back at hospital and you peeling your family roots back to reveal your ancestry.

    Excellent post. Many thanks. I'm already looking forward to the next instalments.

    Greetings from London.

    Reply
  34. Claire Beynon
    February 15, 2010 at 5:55 pm (8 years ago)

    AFTERWORD

    The end we like to say
    is also the beginning.
    Charged with certainty
    and uncertainty we must each day
    face the page undaunted
    by the endless possibilities
    of colour. This has always been
    the way; find the truths a parent
    cannot teach, the purpose
    and presence of chaos, the sense
    and non-sense of order.
    Nothing and no one
    is ours to own and so to lose
    or keep. The blood
    and breath of life ensure we go on
    turning, reinventing meaning
    from inside a full circle.

    CB 2007

    Thank you for the range and depth of these conversations, Elizabeth.

    Reply
  35. Jane Kennedy Sutton
    February 16, 2010 at 12:39 am (8 years ago)

    I bugged my mother with a lot of questions before she passed away, but there were so many more I wished I had asked. Keep asking while you have the opportunity.

    I hope her hand heals quickly.

    Reply
  36. Ces
    February 16, 2010 at 3:06 am (8 years ago)

    I think it is a cultural practice to photograph the dead. People did it when I was growing up and my own father, a photographer used to photograph them at the request of the deceased's surviving relatives. I used to help my Father develop the photographs and I would be scared to look at some of the dead, in fact all of them. However, death in our culture is such an integral part of life that we witness it with much dignity and even find it an honor if we are invited to be with the dying.

    My sister and I clinical pronounced our Mother's death but I shall always remember witnessing her beautiful passing. It was a moment filled with so much sadness yet so much joy and thankfulness. It was a moment when my Mother stopped being mere human but someone with supernatural powers to heal my breaking heart with just the remembrance of her life.

    As a nurse I find it very easy to listen to description of injuries and retell and document them as a matter of course. Yet when I am not on duty, I cringe at the sight of blood and listening to people describe their injuries and even touche their wounds. Yet, I had no qualms performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to my next door neighbor when her heart stopped beating and she stopped breathing. It is as if I have a switch when to cringe and not cringe.

    Reply
  37. Elisabeth
    February 16, 2010 at 7:45 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks Cuban. Just today I sent off an essay for consideration in a major literary magazine here in Australia and the editor came back to me almost instantly – no they could not consider my essay for publication because it was too long. I used to be lucky if I could get anything written above a thousand words, now I have the opposite problem, too much to say. Nevermind.

    Thanks too for observing the symbolism of the business of 'peeling back'. Mind you the more layers you shift the more you have to see and say.

    And, finally, Cuban, I agree with you on the right to photograph deceased loved ones if you so desire. It should not be a requirement under any circumstances, I'd say.

    Thanks for your beautiful poem, Claire. It resonates with me. It has the quality of that hymn, psalm, verse from the bible we learned as children:
    'To everything turn turn turn turn, There is a season , turn turn turn, And a time for every purpose,
    Under heaven…'

    I have a sister who spells her name exactly as you do, Claire. She is immediately below me in age and therefore our relationship has tended to be intense. It still is although we live some distance apart.

    The point I'm making here is that every time I see your name, read your comments or your blog, I'm aware of that sense of connectedness I have with my sister and ridiculously I can't help but wonder whether you two might be similar. 'Disorder out of order' you might say.

    Thanks, Claire for your depth and thoughtfulness.

    Reply
  38. Elisabeth
    February 16, 2010 at 7:52 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Jane. I will try to keep asking my mother questions. Her hearing is not so good these days, but she still loves to talk. thanks for your good wishes.

    Ces, thanks to you, too. I find it fascinating that you can separate out when to cringe at the sight of blood, and when not. It must come out of your training. I am also impressed by your culture's respect for the dead and for the process of dying. We need more of it.

    I went to a funeral earlier this year and we were not allowed to see the coffin either cremated or buried. We were asked to leave and go off to a 'party' in the park.

    I have nothing against wakes – cheerful loud and jolly wakes – but somehow I also want to be part of the gut wrenching grief that comes with the final disposal of the body.

    It's as if in our country here in Australia the business of death has been sanitised. I think this is unfortunate.

    Thanks again, Ces.

    Reply
  39. Dave King
    February 16, 2010 at 12:36 pm (8 years ago)

    I found that strangely moving, though I have to agree with Jim that I have no great interest in anything dead. I did go with my wife to see her mother's corpse an d we both thought afterwards that it had been a mistake. I can't imagine that I would ever take photographs. Death masks I find very eerie, for example.

    Reply
  40. Elisabelle
    February 16, 2010 at 1:31 pm (8 years ago)

    Your words are so moving….

    My poor English does not allow me to write all I would like to, but this text is deeply emotional for me and I guess for every one who reads it.

    Reply
  41. Phoenix
    February 16, 2010 at 10:11 pm (8 years ago)

    Incredible post. So many layers – so much to touch upon. Why do we say touch upon when it means to discuss something? Because we feel it. You wonder out loud why people wince at the injuries of others – because if described in enough detail, we feel it.

    I feel your words, your mother's loss, her pain, your yearning. I feel all of it.

    Reply
  42. Dominic Rivron
    February 16, 2010 at 10:42 pm (8 years ago)

    A very thought provoking post – might even get me writing about my dad (the POW) again! I'm not sure I'd want a pic of anyone close to me when they were dead: not because I'm squeamish about it, but because whenever I've seen the body of someone I know dead, the facial expression I'm familiar with, that announced their presence, was totally absent. (If it were part of my culture to take such pics I'd probably feel differently). With a baby, in the days before cameras were 2 a penny -and then digital- it may have been that the only pic one could get would be post mortem.

    re photos again, I'm reminded of graves I've seen from various E European cultures where people have put photos of the occupant on the headstone. That seems to confront what is a taboo for some people too.

    My mother in law is just getting over a dreadful gash to her leg – the older you get the more damage you do and the longer it seems to take for things to heal.

    Reply
  43. Elisabeth
    February 17, 2010 at 3:00 am (8 years ago)

    Thanks, Phoenix. What you say about the notion of 'touching upon' is resonant. We all want to be touched and to touch in some way, to connect with each other. It begins between mothers and babies and continues for the rest of our lives.

    Dominic, I agree with you about how different people seem when they are dead, when the life first leaves their bodies.

    I remember getting a shock when I saw my husband's father shortly after he had died some years ago. The man's face had always seem so angry, care worn and wrinkled. In death it had softened. I thought I was looking at a different person, not my father in law at all.

    Thanks, Dominic.

    Reply
  44. Manon Doyle
    February 19, 2010 at 12:42 pm (8 years ago)

    I think taking pictures of the dead probably happened more years ago. My grandmother had 19 kids and seven of them died under the age of 5. I believe there were some pics taken. They used to have the wakes in their own living rooms. That just freaks me out. Yup… I'm one of those.
    There's so much more I could say after reading your post. So much I can relate to with my own family.
    Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  45. Jay
    February 19, 2010 at 3:12 pm (8 years ago)

    Wow, what can I possibly have to offer such a thoughtful and moving post — and what hasn't already been said? Enough to say that this did touch me, and I'll see if I can find those books as a recommendation, and a comment on how well written this is.

    Reply
  46. joanne May
    February 19, 2010 at 6:32 pm (8 years ago)

    Hi Elizabeth,
    Thank you for visiting my blog via Caio's site. Sorry for the delay in visiting you… I am now clear of the cold, so I'm able to catch up with everyone.:)
    Your writing touched me deeply because it reminded me of my grandmother. I was very close to her when I was young and remember thinking how fragile her hands use to look. I can still see them now in my mind.
    She also lost two children at a very young age a boy and a girl.
    My mother became an only child and always wanted a brother or a sister.
    I do feel sad for my grandmother. She did find it difficult to talk about the children and did not have any photos of them.
    Thank you for your interesting post, it was very thought provoking and I hope your mothers hand will get better soon.
    Kindest regards,
    Jo May.

    Reply
  47. Elisabeth
    February 19, 2010 at 10:11 pm (8 years ago)

    Gosh Manon, your grandmother had twelve children and five once were children and now ghosts fluttering around the nursery.

    I'll bet there's something in the beautiful eyes you paint that hark back to those ancestors. In those deep pools of blue we see reflected the eyes of the past.

    I always find the eyes in our portraits haunting, clear and bright but with a depth that goes back in time. Thanks.

    Reply
  48. Elisabeth
    February 19, 2010 at 10:18 pm (8 years ago)

    Thanks Jay. I think you'll find those books fascinating, if you can locate them, especially the Ruby.

    I look through it all the time, all those amazing photos of dead people. It reminds me of how I felt as a child when I visited huge churches. come to think of it I still feel it when I visit cathedrals and the like – the eyes of the past looking down on me.

    Thanks for getting back to me, Joanne May. It's good to hear that you're feeling better after your cold.

    It must have been hard in years gone by, this business of dead babies. People rather dismissed the business of losing a child as just one of those things. And sure it happened more often than now at least in the western world where infant mortality has dropped, but nevertheless, I could not imagine anything more painful than to lose a child at any stage of a pregnancy and more so at any stage after birth. The death of a loved one, however old, is painful.

    Thanks for your kind words.

    Reply
  49. Ces
    February 20, 2010 at 1:53 pm (8 years ago)

    Oooh I just read Manon's comment and your response. I jst love what you said about the eyes.

    Reply
  50. Beth Niquette
    February 20, 2010 at 7:06 pm (8 years ago)

    I love your comment: "I will hitch her memories to mine and look for signs in between, look for the haunting to uncover something of her past."

    That is how I feel about my Dad and Mom both. I often forget my Dad and Mom were teenagers once, they were young and newlyweds–they had a story all their own.

    I've been hearing stories about them I'd never heard. Dad is 84–getting close to the jumping off place.

    Back then death was a part of life. Grammie used to tell me a house wasn't a home until someone had died there, been married there, been born there.

    I'm sure the place we live in now has this kind of history–but, alas, not recorded that I know of.

    You are an amazing writer. You not only have a fascinating way of putting thought to paper, but what you've written causes me to ponder.

    Reply

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