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Postmortem Photography

DISCONNECTED FROM DEATH

(APRIL SLAUGHTER/TROY TAYLOR; 228 pages; AMERICAN HAUNTINGS INK, 2018)


This is one that
totally flew under my radar for six years, but when it popped up in a “based on past purchases” list at ThriftBooks, DISCONNECTED FROM DEATH – which is subtitled THE EVOLUTION OF FUNERARY CUSTOMS AND THE UNMASKING OF DEATH IN AMERICA – immediately found its way into my order basket. I guess that says something about how my taste in literature (and movies and television and comics and music and life) runs. Aside from the striking, haunting cover image, co-authors Slaughter and Taylor (whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a couple of times) dig deep (sorry…couldn’t resist!), uncovering the history and often gruesome truths about dying, death and what happens after… and why.

EARLY AMERICAN TOMBSTONE (uncredited photo)

As with all good stories, DISCONNECTED FROM DEATH starts at the beginning. Just kidding! It’s death! We’re starting at the very end and working our way forward. But, of course, traditions do start somewhere… even ghoulish ones. Most of us have come to accept death as inevitable but… I say thee, “Nay!” I fully intend to live forever and so far, so good. Steven Wright quips aside, at some point (if we live long enough), we each must face our own mortality. Oddly enough, as you will discover in the first chapters of this book, that was much easier to do before certain events in American history took place: the unheard of brutality of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. These two tragedies take up one third of DISCONNECTED FROM DEATH (77 pages – 31 and 46 pages, respectively) and changed the way Americans looked at death. They gave birth to modern embalming practices and, in the president’s case, the need to present a “good looking” corpse to a grieving nation.

1800S FAMILY FUNERAL (uncredited photo)

Before the Civil War (and, in most cases, after), death was a family affair. The family of the deceased was solely responsible for preparing the body for viewing (washing and dressing the corpse, sending out invitations for a wake where the family members would sit with the body in a room… ostensibly to ensure that their loved one was REALLY dead) until the burial (the grave was dug by a family member, usually on the family’s property; the casket – if one was used – was lowered into it and the hole was filled). Each family member would take part in this death ritual. The tradition of sitting with the body on the off chance that the person was merely unconscious and not dead came over from Europe, a remnant of the various plagues that ravaged the continent off-and-on for centuries. As embalming was not really a thing, that a person may actually wake up was, while rare, a very real possibility. The embalming procedure started to become popular among the elite class during the Civil War. While the rank-and-file soldiers on both sides of the conflict were usually of the lower class, the officers came from the more well-off families of the era. When a soldier died, unless their family had some type of connection to wealth, they were very rarely returned to their home state and their loved ones… quite often, they were either left on the battlefield or buried with their fallen comrades in a mass, unmarked grave; if they were “fortunate” enough to be found by a member of their unit, they may have been buried in a quickly dug grave and a marking with their name was placed there. Generals, colonels and higher ranking members of both armies would be taken care of quite differently; the body would usually be embalmed, their families would be notified and the government would ensure that the body was placed in a casket, put on a train and delivered to the family’s home town for a “proper” burial. Then, like today, money and position counted.

GETTYSBURG, 1863 (A HARVEST OF DEATH) (photo credit: TIMOTHY O’SULLIVAN)

The assassination of President Lincoln came as a complete shock to the nation, both North and South. Though the news hadn’t reached a lot of people – especially those in rural areas or those directly in the path of the fighting – on the night of April 14, 1865, Confederate General Robert E Lee had surrendered to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the court house in Appomattox County, Virginia five days earlier; in fact, the surrender wasn’t even made official until some sixteen months later, on August 20, 1866. There was a sudden frenzy to display the fallen president and a bidding war of sorts regarding his final resting place. He “belonged” to the people, so surely he would be laid tom rest in the nation’s seat of power, Washington DC; Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd, wanted the body enshrined in Chicago while the citizens of Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln lived and practiced law before ascending to the White House lobbied for his body to be buried in his “home.” Many other cities just wanted to say farewell to the President. All of this led to a two week tour of the major (Northern) cities where the casket was feted and paraded through the massive crowds of well-wishers and gawkers before being opened for a seemingly never-ending line of mourners hoping for just a peek at Lincoln’s corpse. This unprecedented trek came with a litany of unheard of problems (refrigeration was not an option at that time, remember), chief among them was keeping the presidential corpse looking as life-like and delaying the inevitable rot that even an embalmed body goes through. Under the watchful eye of Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, a plan was enacted, which saw the funeral train weave its way through the country, beginning in Baltimore, a Confederate stronghold in a Union state and, coincidentally, the hometown of Lincoln’s killer, actor John Wilkes Booth. Meanwhile, Mary Lincoln refused to vacate the White House (or her room) and refused to let the first family’s youngest son, Tad, leave either. Robert Lincoln, the couple’s oldest son would accompany his father to his final resting place, but the president and Robert would not be the only Lincolns making the journey: Lincoln’s third child, Willie, had died in 1862, while Lincoln occupied the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His remains were disinterred for reburial beside his father. Also along for the journey were an embalmer, Doctor Charles Brown, and an undertaker, Frank Sands, both there to ensure that the decomposition of the president was, at the very least, held at bay for the entirety of the “farewell tour.” This was accomplished by perfume and flowers (to somewhat cover the odor) and actor’s makeup and powder; on May 3, upon arrival in Springfield, Brown discovered that Lincoln’s face had actually turned black. Thomas Lynch, a “courtesy” embalmer was quick to offer a solution: Pancake the president’s face with rouge chalk and amber. In less than 30 minutes, Lynch had applied a thick coat of the make-up on Lincoln’s face so the grieving onlookers wouldn’t be horrified at what had become of their president. An honor guard was on 24-hour duty with the body, even on the train, and Abraham Lincoln’s friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, was still on watchful duty.

VICTORIAN ERA POSTMORTEM FAMILY PHOTO (uncredited photo)

Those two chapters are quite intriguing and, I must admit (even as a Civil War and history buff), they are filled with information and little insights that were new to me. There are, of course, other chapters dealing with funerary customs and traditions. For instance: Though the practice is considered rather morbid today, postmortem photography was quite popular during the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Very few people could afford to have a family photo made, but wanting to remember a loved one as they were in life sometimes meant shelling out a rather exorbitant price for one after they were gone. Some of the pictures look quite natural while others are more ghoulish than the family intended. With photographers (and possibly the family of the deceased) wanting the corpse to look as alive as possible, they would prop them up or place them in a position that made them appear to be standing or sitting with their family; some photographers would hand-paint eyes on the face of the dead onto the print. As creepy as all of that sounds, it doesn’t come close to ghost or “spirit” photography. As the story goes, in October 1861, a photographer named William H Mumler was developing some self-portraits and noticed an anomaly on one of the prints: A spectral figure that he identified as a cousin who had died when they were both children. Suddenly, everyone wanted Mumler to photograph them with the hopes of seeing their lost loved one again. As one would expect, the phenomenon didn’t always materialize; it turned out that if you couldn’t afford the exorbitant price charged by the photographer, all you had was a picture of you… no ghost or spirit. However, if you were well-known or well-heeled, amazingly, your loved one was right there with you, a spectral vision from beyond the grave. With Mary Todd Lincoln, leading the way, seances and spiritualism had made a comeback after the Civil War ended and the president was assassinated. It was no surprise, then, that the former First Lady would pay Mister Mumler a visit. Mumler’s scam was eventually discovered, but there still remains some of the earliest examples of the use of trick photography.

MARY TODD LINCOLN WITH THE “SPIRIT” OF HER HUSBAND, CIRCA 1872 (photo credit: WILLIAM H MUMLER)

Other chapters delve into the Victorian Era mourning rituals, many of which influenced how we dealt with – and, in some cases, still deal – with death and survivor’s grief; children and how they were taught to prepare for their own demise; the rise of cemeteries, first in the churchyard and then within the city limits and, finally, outside of the city as urban sprawl began to eat up real estate and the bodies began to pile up (figuratively) and the reek of the decaying flesh started to make everyone else sick (literally). There’s a chapter that covers funeral arrangements, the basic costs and what you do or do not need; for instance, I did not realize that embalming is an “extra” that isn’t really necessary – if the body is going to be planted or roasted within two or three days, most funeral homes have refrigeration units that would keep the body looking fresh until the actual funeral. Actually, there are no laws or regulations – state or federal – that requires a body to be embalmed. The final chapter deals with alternative funerals and unique ways to memorialize the deceased that most of us would never have realized. While this tome does not take death lightly, it is still quite entertaining and very informative for ghoul and non-ghoul alike. Slaughter and Taylor have exhaustively researched the subject matter and their attention to detail shows in the work. DISCONNECTED FROM DEATH is available at americanhauntingsbooks.com and the usual suspects for purchasing such stuff.