Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Last photos

The cover photo on USA Today this morning was of the late Pope John Paul II's body on display for mourners at the Vatican. I've seen a lot of pictures on his body, in fact, which struck me as odd until I thought about my family.

We photograph the dead.

I was very young when my grandfathers died, too young to remember them, but our photo albums had pictures of them, even in their caskets. There were also pictures of people who died before I was born. Even knowing my parents' tendency to take funeral snapshots, I remember being taken aback when I opened a letter and a picture of Granny all laid out fell into my lap. Granny was poor, hardworking, toothless, and completely uninterested in fashion. Since I wasn't able to make the trip to the funeral, Mom wanted me to see how nice she looked. I suspect that was the thought behind a lot of our family funeral photos - this is the best he ever looked, so let's get a picture of it.

When our dad died, my brother and I went to the funeral home one afternoon and took pictures of everything - dad, the flowers, the stained glass window in the chapel. "This is so strange," I thought, "but it is also what Dad would have done." When mom died a couple of years later, we did the same thing. We also have a bunch of pictures of the gravestone as it progressed from having one name to two.

I thought this might be a southern thing, but T's older cousins remember having their photo taken in front of their grandfather's casket in Iowa. I learned this at a funeral luncheon when one of them sheepishly asked if anyone would object to her taking a few pictures. It was after the funeral, mind you, but all of the cousins were together, and it was a perfect chance to get a picture of everyone, so why not?

Death is an inevitable part of life. In my family, as in Rome, commemorating that passage is as natural as breathing.

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