Death and Memorial Landscapes: A Photographic Journey
For centuries, portraying and later photographing the living and the dead has been both common practice and the object of constant superstition and fear. For a long time, people widely believed that a pictorial act – painting and later photography – could imprison the soul. The industrial revolution profoundly changed and reshaped the world, and put many of these old fears to rest . However, as we can see by looking back at the death and memorial landscapes of the past and the present, new sensibilities have since emerged. A photographic journey through this field offers interesting insights into the relationship between life, death and changing understandings of ‘reality’.
Portraying the Deceased
In Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Oval Portrait, there is a trace of the tradition of portraying the deceased. In a brilliant way, Poe used the work of art to introduce a historical fact. Following the narrator’s description of the origin of the portrait, we learn about the way the painting was created. With an intention to capture and transpose the ‘rarest beauty’ of his wife into an artistic object, the painter created a whole new life within the image. Being art, this new life is at the same time eternity, and since eternity implies death, the wife of the painter transgresses her own life, through death. Poe showed that such a portrait inevitably offers something more than it suggests – not simply the image of a departed person, but a signifier for ‘Life itself.’
This is how we read depictions of the departed, that create a connection between art, life and death. When portraying the dead, painters of the past tried to give an illusion of deep sleep and eternal beauty. With this, life became part of the painting. In Poe’s novel, the artistic work is not about the representation of a dead person. Nevertheless, in order to capture the full significance of life and beauty, life must be taken away.
Many readers are surely familiar with some of Edvard Munch’s famous death paintings. The Dead Mother and Child, for example, is reminiscent of the practice of mortuary painting. Although the painting dates from the very end of the 19th century, when portraits were mostly only of the deceased, this is a somewhat different constellation: It is a frozen moment – a so-called ‘narrative mourning tableau’ – where the deceased is no longer alone but surrounded by his/her loved ones.
This practice was replaced by the mortuary (post-mortem) photography of the late 19th and 20th centuries, which entered everyday lives with the invention of the daguerreotype, and marked the Victorian Era. While the 19th-century photographs brought mostly close-up images of the dead, in the 20th century, mourners (family members, friends and colleagues) became part of the scenes. They stood at the deathbed, in the courtyard or at the graveside. With this, attention was shifted to include an explicit reference to the memory of a mourning person.
Reading the pictures introduced above, a funeral appears to be a social gathering. This is the case up to the present day. The 1st of November is known in the Catholic Church as a day devoted to those who have left this world and need to be prayed for and remembered.
Some Slavic-speaking areas in the Balkan peninsula have several such commemoration days known as the Day of the Dead, or literally Day for Souls: Задушница, Душница, Мъртви съботи, Мъртъв ден, Ден на мъртвите (Bulgarian), Dušni dan, Dan mrtvih (Croatian), Задушници (Macedonian), Задушнице/Zadušnice (Serbian). On these days, cemeteries do reflect the scenes captured in our photographs: people – family, friends, neighbours – gather at graves, decorating them with flowers and candles, praying and commemorating the departed.
If you walk through cemeteries in the Serbian part of Banat during these days in October and November, when the dead are being recalled into our lives, you would regularly find the traces of gatherings at cemeteries. These not only include the flowers and candles left there, but also ‘offerings of food and drinks’, representing sacrifice and prayer for souls.
But, let us go back to the framed family photograph:
When we look at it, we see that is a photo-collage that brings forth the most important moments of life: youth, through the gathered friends; getting married and dying, through weddings and funerals, which occupy the most space within the frame. The fact that weddings and funerals are perceived as similar events can be linked to a number of traditions. If a curious reader decided to venture into the field of oral poetry, he/she would definitely find wedding and death laments related to the separation from loved ones, whether they are going to a new home or to a new world. In both cases, it is a matter of leaving the old world behind. The other fact, besides this layer, is the photo-collage itself, placed in a wall frame. It means that these kinds of pictures were an important part of private daily lives – hanging on the wall at home or included in family albums.
Today, such surroundings are rare. If some of these memorabilia do still exist, they are mostly kept away amongst private documents, prayer books or the Bible. What remains are the photographs taken while deceased persons were still alive. Nonetheless, we all still witness commemorative traditions. These include memorial postcards with famous persons long since dead or posters and graffiti within public urban and rural landscapes. Such practices also take place on TV and online, and remain ever-present in street or newspaper obituaries and monuments. Looking around and back through the centuries, we may be reminded of Maude’s famous words from the movie Harold and Maude: ‘it’s all memorabilia, but incidental and not integral, if you know what I mean.’ Being not integral, each memory tells its own story.