My interest in death and photography has been nurtured by a somewhat perverse pleasure in dealing with things generally avoided, ignored or undervalued by more traditional scholars. Orthodoxy in scholarship, like life, prematurely limits our horizons. On a more profound level, I am convinced that an examination of this topic provides an important perspective on Americans' cultural expectations and attitudes toward photography, death, funerals and mourning. The reward of combining death and photography into one study is that the synthesis offers something that an examination of each alone lacks.
People in the United States have a history of devaluing "...the significance of death, it has been disguised, suppressed and denied in a way unprecedented in the history of human culture" (Stannard 1974:44). Scholars interested in the pictorial representation of death and the social customs surrounding it find their work regarded as morbid or strange. "Expressions of grief have been considered embarrassing, even in bad taste, for many decades. Interest in death has been thought morbid or, at least, maudlin" (Stitt 1980:7). Two photohistorians known for writing successful books on photography have had their manuscript on a pictorial study of the social customs of death rejected several times by publishers who thought it too depressing to sell well. According to Phoebe Lloyd, the labeling of a nineteenth-century folk painting as posthumous will lower its market value and salability. A colleague's wife is uncomfortable at the thought of coming to my home because I have all "those pictures of dead babies." My proposal to mount an exhibition on this subject was rejected by several curators as being too "difficult" for the public.
This book is an outgrowth of a general research interest in the ethnography of visual communication and the social history of pictorial representation. In the process of examining the socio-cultural functions of photography in the rural community of Juniata County, Pennsylvania, I discovered a number of twentieth century post-mortem photographs taken by Paul Smith, a professional studio photographer who practiced his trade in Port Royal, Pennsylvania, from 1925 to 1968. Because the goal of my research was to understand images within their contexts of production and use, I contacted the son of a funeral director whose name appeared on Smith's negative envelopes to inquire whether he could help me understand when people hire a professional to photograph their dead relatives and what they might do with these pictures. Our discussion was most enlightening. He told me that post-mortem and funeral photography was commonplace in Juniata County. When I pursued the questions with other local funeral directors and professional photographers, I discovered what was to me then an amazing amount of activity. To my knowledge, people in my family have never taken corpse or funeral photographs. So I accepted the received wisdom of the time from people like Michael Lesy that the practice was virtually nonexistent - a bizarre Victorian custom now confined to a few ethnic enclaves. I was wrong....
As I pursued my inquiry, I discovered a wide range of responses to this variety of photographic activity. No one was neutral. They either strongly disapproved or felt that it was an important thing to do. I could not even correlate the responses with profession. Some funeral directors were profoundly disgusted at the thought. They had little to say to me and actively discouraged their clients from taking pictures, while other morticians had taken post-mortem photographs of their own children. Some bereavement councilors told me categorically that taking funeral photos was a certain sign of pathological grief. I thus felt compelled to explore the subject in a more systematic way. I began to include questions about death photography in the interviews I was already conducting in Juniata County. I compiled an archive of death-related images and other relevant materials from flea markets, other collectors, and dealers. I sent out questionnaires to cultural institutions with significant photographic collections, and I questioned a number of professional photographers and funeral directors about the practice. Soon I had a sizable collection of images and information. I had sufficient evidence to state that death- related photography was very much a part of the picture taking habits of contemporary Americans. The material collected in this fashion constitutes the core of the book.