"Ghost Babies" and the Macabre World of Post-Mortem Photo Collecting

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Boingboing recently published an excellent and very in-depth article on the strange world of post-mortem photo collecting -- something I know a bit about, tangentially, because I'm a collector of old photos myself. I don't buy "PMs," as they're colloquially known (unless there's something incredibly interesting written on them -- that's kind of my thing), but plenty of other people do, as evidenced by their booming trade on eBay. As Mark Dery writes in the boingboing piece: "When Marx wrote, in The Communist Manifesto, that capitalism "has left remaining no other nexus between man and man" than the "naked self-interest" of the cash nexus, he never imagined the eBay listing whose description assures, "You are bidding on a cabinet card measuring 8 X 6 inches of a sweet baby in repose after death. He/she is laid out for viewing on a bed or table covered in lace, and dressed in a long white christening dress. This may have been the only photo taken of this precious child."

A "great" post-mortem photo (always antique -- never modern) can fetch hundreds of dollars or more, which has made them so popular amongst photo sellers that hucksters on eBay often try to pitch photos of people who almost certainly are not dead as PMs. It all seems rather incredible, but rather than excoriating these collectors as hopelessly out-there weirdos, Dery asks why -- why are we so fascinated by them? His conclusions are insightful. "The 20th century," he writes, "bore witness to the medicalization of dying, the professionalization of funeral rituals, and the repression of death in everyday life. Death decamped to the hospital, and the ritualized leave-taking of the Loved One moved from its traditional domestic theater--the front parlor--to the funeral parlor, stage-managed not by the eerily named undertaker but by the more antiseptic-sounding funeral director."

In the here and now, antique postmortem images are riveting because they emblematize the Authentic in an ever more mediated world. In a time when we interact, more and more, through Tweets, text messages, and Facebook pokes and likes, the black-and-white dead of the 19th Century condense raw emotions; at a moment when the here-and-now seems increasingly like a fading afterimage of our vivid imaginative lives on the other side of the screen, they confront us with the inescapable fact of embodiment, more corporeal for the dead weight of death, more real for the trickling blood, blood that dried 100 years ago but through the necromancy of photography looks blackly wet all over again, every time we look at it.

"The post mortem photograph is a relic of a past that has been erased by modernity," says Michael Sappol, author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th-Century America. "And in that lost world, people had more direct and less mediated experiences of sweat/blood/piss/grime/dust/phlegm/pus. And less mediated (less medicated) experiences of death, with a lot more suffering."

The taboos of sex and death switched places in the last hundred years. The Victorians would've been shocked at the erotic images you find everywhere in the 21st century, but didn't flinch when it came to making images of their dead loved ones. I'd like to think that the people who collect those photos are just as interested in this lost way of life -- or rather, way of death; a set of rituals that now seem alien to us -- as they are in the gruesome ghost babies themselves.

April 6, 2011 - 3:18am
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