It used to be that when someone died, a photograph would be taken of the corpse. Children and infants died with some regularity in those days, and parents would often commission a photograph as a memento, their only image of the child lost. In these portraits, a dead infant is posed in a cradle, held by their mother, or sometimes by an older sibling, and usually appears to be sleeping, if sleeping involved donning one’s Sunday best and clutching a bouquet of flowers.
Adults, too, were posed for post-mortem portraits, often as if they were alive, sitting up in chairs or braced by specially designed scaffoldings, sometimes with eyes drawn onto closed eyelids post-processing. In other photographs, the subject looks as if she has just dozed off into a deep sleep, perhaps with a book lying carelessly open on her chest.
For the most part, these memento mori aren’t any creepier than the typical starched-up and stern portraits of live humans from the same era. Later, the aesthetics of the genre took to photographing bodies arranged in coffins, but even these have a strange everydayness to them—in one image from the Thanatos Archive a woman in her coffin is supported vertically, facing the camera as the family gathers round for a portrait. Just another family snapshot.
Of course, the knowledge that the subjects were dead at the time of capture generates a tiny frisson, made more shivery by the knowledge that these people, whomever they were, lived well before the internet, and yet their images have been passed from hand to hand, album to album in advance of its creation and now circulate among us as relics of a different era, one with more familiar habits around death.
At the time when post-mortem portraits were popular, they were singular. In many cases, the photo was likely the only image of a deceased person. They were precious, sent to close family and friends, cared for, passed on.
Now, we all see dead people. Or do we? We see countless images of those who have died—sometimes even in fake-holographic form—and yet we almost never see pictures of the dead. In fact, Wikipedia claims that the decline in post-mortem portraiture coincided with the rise in snapshot photography. As capturing moments as they were lived became more prevalent and affordable, we felt less compelled to document our dead.
The issue is no longer how to preserve a single precious thread to the past, but how to account for the digital tangle that is a person’s post-mortem online presence. The era of digital preservation and documentation raises new questions about the persistence of memory, our relation to lost time. When a person dies, what do you do with her Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, or Flickr accounts? What about her blog? Should you continue to tag a deceased person in photos? Do you post a death announcement on someone’s wall, or send a tweet to followers, in order to alert those you may not know personally?
These platforms have tried to account for such inevitabilities. For example, Facebook offers a “memorializing” option, which entails verifying a death and thus freezing an account, allowing only confirmed friends and family members to view it. But, this raises other questions, more uncomfortable questions, like, what if you weren’t “friends” with the deceased at the time of their death? Facebook’s structure assumes that all bonds operate with transparency and consistency, that if you love someone, then you allow them access to your public face. It assumes one dies in a state of harmony, at a moment when petty unfriendings have been resolved and reversed. In the world of Facebook memorials, if you’re not “friends,” then, well, you are not friends, and thus can be excluded from memory, or at least the kind of celebratory memorializing that Facebook seems to breed. For the unfriended, the “add as friend” button will remain, haunted by all the unfinished, uninitiated conversations that died with the deceased.
I give myself away. My father and I weren’t Facebook friends at the time of his death. In fact, we were only ever Facebook friends for about a week and his death came at the end of a long period during which we barely communicated—a conscious choice I made in order to gain emotional distance from a damaging relationship. We weren’t Facebook friends. I had unfriended him. I didn’t want to give him the false sense he knew me by giving him access to this most superficial slice of my life.
“If you know Harry, send them a friend request or message them.”
This is the message I am faced with every time I come across his account —as a recommended friend, as a friend of another relative—and fail to resist the urge to click. We weren’t Facebook friends, so all his account offers me is a reminder of the distance that swamped our relationship, my choice not to communicate and his inability to acknowledge that choice, that and his photograph. His profile photo smiles wanly, eyes nearly closed, inscrutable. As memento mori, then, his Facebook page has less to do with the fallibility of his life, and much more to do with the fallibility of human relationships, of our relationship.
I think I prefer the death portrait. Not only because I was with my father at the moment of his death, but also because in that moment the distance, the pain, the silences, the dishonesty, the profound isolation he cultivated around himself seemed insignificant, not gone, exactly, but diminished in the face of death. When we die, we are human, even if we are assholes.
As my father died, there was only the feeling that he must not go alone. It was as if my hand could actually usher him through the terror and deposit him safely on the other side. It was as if he was begging me to do this for him, though he could not speak, was not conscious. Bizarrely, I felt closer to him in that moment than I had, well, perhaps ever. It was his death that made room, again, for love.
To me it makes sense, then, that if you could have only one image by which to remember someone that you would choose the moment of death, the moment in which you can love unreservedly, the moment in which we can no longer support ourselves and must give in to the care of others, in which we can offer such care to another.
I don’t exactly have a death portrait of my father, though that moment is burned into my brain. I do have a snapshot I took about half an hour before he died as we ate sushi in his hospice room. It is the last photo that would be taken of him. I took it for my brother, who couldn’t be there, though I haven’t shown it to him, yet. I’m not quite sure how he would react, whether he would even want to see it. It wasn’t until I had the scene framed in the camera that I realized the only photo like this that I had seen was the controversial photograph of David Kirby dying of AIDS. Yet, I snapped it, not one to buy into taboos.
No one ever really talks about the moment of death, the experience of being in the room with someone who is about to die, the odd vacuum in the pause after their last breath. It’s a profound human experience, one that we will all encounter, and yet we know nothing of it. We can’t. Perhaps this is why we’re so scared of death and why we don’t document our experiences with it.
My father’s was the first death I would witness. When my mother died (suddenly and without warning) none of us kids were home. I arrived just in time to see the paramedics take her body down the stairs on a stretcher. My last glimpse was her hand, with her wedding ring, slipping out from under the sheet. Even then, I remember an aunt trying to block my view, standing in the doorway, another aunt holding me back. It was as if seeing her body in death, her utterly familiar body, would be unbearable. Maybe it would have been, but it was the only thing I wanted: to see her, to confirm the inconceivable with my own eyes.
Being in the room with my father when he died made his death ordinary. He was there and then he wasn’t. He let go, literally. His face went slack and almost instantly, his skin began to lose its colour. I could feel it happen. It was peaceful.
I think sometimes about replacing my father’s Facebook photo with that last photograph I took of him or about posting the photo on his wall. I’m sure I’d lose a few friends. And yet for me, that photo isn’t macabre, though it shows my father nearly dead, but reminds me of the feeling of healing that accompanied the experience of his death. It’s a feeling I now struggle to get back to, and it’s there in the photo. I look at it from time to time.
Of course, my father and I aren’t Facebook friends, so I can’t really post the photo anywhere on his profile. His public face will remain abstracted from his private life, some of his few friends possibly never knowing that he’s died. I could tell them, of course, send a private message, maybe an announcement accompanied by a barely pre-mortem portrait. But then again, we’re hardly Victorians, and if Facebook bans photos of breast-feeding, I shudder to think how they would address images of the dying.