Halloween 2017: Beyond the Dark Veil from the Thanatos Archive

Book: Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Mourning Photograph

Author: Jack Mord

Type of Book: Non-fiction, photography, death photography, mourning photography

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Photos of dead people, etc.

Availability: This was beyond a doubt the most involved copyright page I’ve ever seen in a book. Shortest publisher name behind this book was Last Gasp, this book was published in 2014, and you can get a copy here:

Comments: All the death photography books I own are in some regard beautiful. The Burns Archive books are all substantial yet minimalist in their arrangement. Beyond the Dark Veil is more ornate, a gorgeous little book, with gold-edged pages and a gold embossed cover. The pages are thick and glossy and I felt like I needed to don gloves before flipping through it. I’m lucky enough to own some amazingly beautiful books and Beyond the Dark Veil takes a certain pride of place among them.

I am harping on this book’s beauty because this book really is a visual and tactile experience. All photography books are visual, of course, but among people who accumulate books we occasionally come across a book that is just above and beyond, constructed in a way that makes you want to hold it and stroke it and just gaze at it lovingly. This book has interesting information about death photography and funerary customs, and deviates a bit by offering photos of the sick and dying, as well as customs of burial, but I’ve quoted from books about death photography and cemeteries in several entries on this site. So I don’t plan to quote too much information from this book.

Instead, I will quote from the introduction, entitled “Remembering Death.” Written by Marion Peck, herself an artist who creates gorgeous, visually compelling paintings, this introduction captures the loveliness of the book. I think the final paragraph in her introduction very well sums up the photographs in this collection that speak to me the most:

In a sense, these photographs are like ghosts. They are the shadows of people who once lived actively and breathed in a present moment, who saw the blue sky above their heads and might have felt the same passions, joys, and sorrows in their hearts that we feel in our own. If we can quiet ourselves enough to spend some time with these ghosts, contemplating, listening to them, we may learn from their great wisdom. It is the wisdom of ancestors, of those who came before. What we are, so once were they. What they are, so we shall be.

I don’t know if I can ever really explain why I have such a love of cemeteries, death photography, funerary statuary, and most of the ornate customs and accessories of Victorian death. But on some level I think I am learning from the dead. I am godless. I fully expect that when I die I will cease to exist – no heaven, no reincarnation, no posthumous salvation. But we don’t know, really, what happens when we die. Modern medicine seems to think that the brain protects us from the worst horrors of death, that the parts of the brain that experience great pain and fear shut down and we experience only the brightly-lit sensations of awe and wonder as we leave. I think I wander cemeteries because I want to know what awaits me and am studying all the options.

Part of it too is that I am one of two leaves left on a withered branch on a spread-out family tree. There won’t be mourning children and grandchildren or bereft siblings when I go. If I die before Mr OTC, I won’t have a headstone. I won’t be photographed. I will be cremated and hopefully poured into some paint or concrete and something interesting made of my ashes. All the evidence of death I sift through will not be mine so I have to observe now because I will never be among those who are buried and presumably know. And that’s good. I don’t really care if I have these customs applied to my death.

But at the end I wonder how much anyone can really control the customs that others use to navigate the death of loved ones. My mother, by her own request, has no stone and her ashes were scattered on private property that we need special permission to access. Not having that place I can go to visit, to speak to her, is a lot more troubling than I expected. These customs we have built up over centuries of civilization may be steeped in religion that means nothing to me but the customs came about as we human beings struggled to cope with death, to ease the blow, to be able to remain tethered to the dead because even the most hardened unbeliever feels forsaken when she realizes she will never again be in the presence of her mother.  In the absence of a place to visit her, I have created a sort of shrine to her.  I didn’t think about it too much as I did it because my actions were really mindless reactions, but I have some of her ashes, a couple of her prized perfume bottles, small gifts she gave me, some of her parents’ belongings, all behind a glass-fronted shelf in one of my bookcases.  It almost seems like it is an instinct to demand a permanent place to mourn the dead and if the dead prefer not to have a static mourning place dedicated to them, those who miss them will do what is needed to be able to commune with them.

We do these things because it is part of being human.  These photos show me that.

But even as I feel a bit melodramatic writing this out, the fact is that we do what we do for the dead so that we can remember them and so that we can be remembered because it is daunting to think that there will be a time when no one alive knows us. These traditions are an attempt at permanence, and given my own recent experiences, it’s an attempt I understand all the better.

Under the cut are the photographs that resonated the most with me, presented with only enough comment to give them context.

Halloween 2017: Sleeping Beauty II from the Burns Archive

Book: Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement and the Family in Memorial Photography, American and European Traditions

Credits: Stanley B. Burns, M.D. with Elizabeth A. Burns

Type of Book:
Non-fiction, photography, death photography

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, pictures of dead people will always be a little bit odd.

Availability: Published by the Burns Archive in 2002, it can be found from third party sellers on Amazon:

But you can also get a copy directly from the Burns Archive as well.

Comments: As I was poking around in my shelves finding books appropriate for Halloween discussions – books about cemeteries, ghosts, creepy things in general – it struck me how many books I have devoted to death photography. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I find death photography absolutely fascinating. The first Sleeping Beauty, purchased from The Strand Book Store in New York for what turned out to be a song, is one of my prized possessions. When I die, I will not leave a sizeable financial estate but hopefully fist fights will break out among my loved ones as they negotiate who gets my Burns Archive book collection.

Mr OTC inadvertently started my obsession with death photography. We had just moved to Austin and he was attending grad school. In one of the libraries someone had removed this book from the shelf and left it on a table. He checked it out and brought it home for me to look through, certain I would be interested in it. How well he knew me even then. I don’t think you can check this book out any more and it took me a very long time to be able to afford the comparatively inexpensive copy I got from The Strand. Now books from the Burns Archive are gifts for me on birthdays and Christmas and that is how I got this copy of Sleeping Beauty II – Mr OTC came through for Christmas in 2006. I wonder if he ever regrets igniting this interest of mine because the books documenting it are seldom cheap. He’d be well and truly screwed if I actually sought out original photos to purchase but I’m a reasonable fanatic.

I find the best way to discuss these books is to quote from the textual information and demonstrate the information with photographs. Because some people, understandably, find pictures of dead children distressing, I will put all such photos under the cut.

Sleeping Beauty III by Stanley R. Burns, M.D.

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Sleeping Beauty III, Memorial Photography: The Children

Author: From the Stanley Burns Archive

Type of Book: Non-fiction, photography, death photography, funerary customs

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Pictures of dead children will always be a bit odd.

Availability: Released by The Burns Archive in 2011, you can get a copy on Amazon here:

But I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in the macabre photography from the Burns Archive go directly to them. Sometimes you can get the books far cheaper if you buy directly from the press itself. Not always, but compare before you buy. As much as I like the kickbacks I get when y’all buy stuff using my Amazon Affiliate link, sometimes one can get a new Burns Archive book for literally hundreds less on the Burns Archive site than buying it from a third party vendor on other book sites.

Comments: I’d intended to discuss this book long ago but I put it up on display with a piece of art that Mr. Oddbooks bought me. Once something is on a stand behind glass, I am loathe to mess with it too much. However, I recently started using some software to analyze the traffic to this site and noticed a lot of traffic coming from searches about death photography. Then, shockingly, I noticed some hits coming from Pintrest. You know, the site wherein people share pictures of cake, high heels and celebrities with cats. Never thought death photography would be an interest on such a fluffy site, and for some reason, discovering that fact encouraged me to get my book off the stand and discuss it. Actually, I have several Burns Archive books on creepy topics that I should discuss here.

For now, I’m going to discuss Sleeping Beauty III. This book is much smaller in size than Sleeping Beauty I and II, almost appropriately because this volume deals with children exclusively. Sleeping Beauty III has 125 pictures from the 1840s to present time, and spans several cultures. Though the book is definitely Western-centric, and truly most death photography is of white people, this book contains some pictures from other cultures.

A lot of people find memorial photography morbid – if you stumble across a Facebook account where death photography is discussed or reproduced, the comments range from an appreciation of the history to people thinking the parents long ago were insane or that the whole thing in general is somehow morally wrong or gross. “Ewww! Why would anyone want to take a picture of a dead person?” As much as I dislike it when people react to these pictures from a strictly modern sensibility or a squeamish quasi-morality, I often have a hard time explaining why it is such images appeal to me. Burns does his best to explain why these images may seem so jarring:

It is difficult for most of us today to understand the prior culture’s need to take memorial photographs. We no longer live with personal death and dying as part of our everyday lives. By the 1930s, dealing with death had been left to professionals ranging from physicians to morticians. The advance of medicine, control of killer epidemics, the ability to treat disease, and the removal of the sick from the home made us unaccustomed to living with and seeing death. Children dying before parents, something so common in the nineteenth century, has become unusual in the twentieth century.

He goes on:

Memorial postmortem photographs have deep meaning for mourners. These keepsakes become special icons that help survivors move through the bereavement process. Healthy grieving ultimately distances us from the dead. The human bond, our connection with others, is mankind’s strongest guiding emotion and thus influences our fears and actions. These images represent confrontation with our loved one’s mortality and our own.

I would like to think this fear of death that these images can provoke is behind the “Yuck!” reactions people sometimes express.

I often have a hard time discussing death photography because I relate to these images on an emotional level. While the appeal of the Burns Archive collection tends towards the visceral response, Burns offers useful information in the book to give context and history behind the photographs. I find the best way to discuss this little book is to reproduce a few pictures from it and quote the information that Burns provides to help us put these pictures into an historical context.

Reading postmortem photography comes with understanding the culture of death in a given era. Today it is traditional to close the eyes of the dead. But in the past, when a memorial photograph was taken, families frequently requested, especially for children, that the eyes be open. This was particularly the case for children who had never been photographed when they were alive. A second, eyes-closed photograph with changed pose would signal the memorial photograph. Photographs that depict the dead child in some sort of activity as if alive are considered “posthumous mourning portraits.”

This picture is haunting. It looks to me like his eyes may have been painted on the print to make them look open. The symbolism of this little boy at death’s door really isn’t symbolism. He’s dead and gone, and his eyes don’t give this picture any ambiguity.

Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America by Stanley Burns, M.D.

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America

Author: Stanley Burns, M.D.

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Contains photographs of dead people, many children, from the turn of the 19th century and while beautiful, it is somewhat morbid. If you have an aversion to such photography, give this review a skip.

Type of Book: Photography

Availability: While I am unsure if this book is considered rare, per se, it only had two editions.  Mine is from the second edition.  Clearly, the first editions are far more expensive, but the second editions are pricey as well.  One can obtain a copy of either edition if one is willing to pay between $400-$1000 USD. Had The Strand not had a copy with a damaged book jacket selling for cheap, I would not have a copy. Amazon appears to be the best source for this book:

Comments: This book is one of my most prized books. I waited for almost a decade to be able to afford a copy, and even after I ordered it, I bit my nails until it arrived for fear that there was some mistake and they were going to notify me that I had been undercharged. Reading this book on loan from a library began my intense interest in memorial and death photography. It is one of those treasured books that I still cannot believe I own.

This book examines postmortem photography from 1840-1930. A practice that may seem morbid to some, death photography was actually quite common for those who could afford it. In a time when photography was still expensive, many times these photographs of the dead would be the sole picture people would have to remember their loved one, especially if the deceased was a child. The pictures in this book will often stay with those who have just glanced through it. After discussions online, there have been a number of times wherein people who could remember a particular image sent me messages asking me if I could provide details. One photo in particular, “The Murdered Parsons Family,” generates more messages than any other. The picture shows a father, a wife, and their three children, laid out on a bed like cord wood, bullet wounds visible on their faces and bodies. I think this is the most remembered picture because it plays into so many different modern fears. Home invasions, violent murder, children in danger. Many of the pictures in this book depict deaths that seem like they could no longer happen to affluent Americans. Emaciated babies and typhoid victims are thin on the ground these days. Kids dying from bullets are not. I think every person willing to have a look at this book will find a picture that will haunt them. Or, as was my case, many that will haunt them.

But most of the time we will have no real idea why certain photographs affect us other than the obvious pathos involved in looking at the dead. To this day I am not sure why I am so deeply interested in these photographs. Stanley Burns says in his preface, “Nineteenth-century Americans knew how to respond to these images. Today there is no culturally nominative response to postmortem photographs.” And that is why many of us, myself included, are awe-struck by these photographs, unable really to explain what we find so appealing and appalling about them.

Though many pictures in this book affected me, during the reading I did before writing this entree one photograph seemed to affect me the most. And bear in mind that I can on some level state intellectually what interested me in this photograph, there is likely a visceral response that I could never express.

This picture is quite striking to me. As Burns indicates in the notes for this picture, it is uncommon to see fathers posing with their dead children. More often than not, mothers posed, or the child was photographed alone.  That the father is the primary parent in this photograph is touching because it is so atypical.

Another poignant part of the picture is not immediately obvious, but if you look in the lower left hand corner, you will see the mother’s hand stabilizing the pillows that prop up her dead daughter.  That action was among one of the last things she could do to help capture the memory of her child, a little girl whose death took her far beyond the reach of a mother’s desire to nurture.

And my god, the little girl…  In many of the photographs in Burns’ book, the children look like they are sleeping.  But some look obviously dead, with bloody faces, severe emaciation, or evidence of disease on their still bodies.  This little girl straddles the line between sleeping and hard death.  As you look at her, you can tell there is something very off about her eyes and the pose she is in.  It looks like she is either beginning rigor mortis or leaving it.  But by not appearing that she is sleeping, and by not looking as horrible as some of the corpses in this book, she is in a netherworld where, to the casual viewer, it may not immediately be evident what is happening.

This and other pictures like it give lie to some of the ideas I have learned from history.   Many sources claim that until the time of American urbanization and complete industrialization, life was cheap and the lives of children even cheaper.   These sources claim that couples had many children not only to use as a labor force, but also to ensure that at least a couple survived to adulthood. Childhood was an unsentimental time because parents could not get attached to their children. The pictures in Sleeping Beauty make it clear that even when money was tight, when photography resources were limited, and even when life seemed cheap, it was never really quite that way.  People deeply mourned their dead, especially their children, and paid money to make sure that there was some evidence that a dead person existed beyond simply the memories of those who loved them.  This comforts me.  It tells me that human beings are often much the same no matter when they lived in history.   These pictures show me that life was not so cheap even when I assumed it was.

The book is filled with pictures like this, heartbreaking looks into the ways that parents handled the deaths of their children, but not all the pictures are of families. Badmen in their coffins, murder victims, as well as photos of memorial picture presentation in jewelry or watches. Hopefully, one day this book will be released for a third printing, making it somewhat more affordable for people to get their hands on a copy. It is truly a beautiful, haunting book.