In “Ghost Babies,” an essay featured on Boing Boing, I ponder the eBay market for postmortem photographs, wondering what the brisk trade in daguerreotypes of the dead says about its fanbase.
Do collectors find these images compelling because they’re poignant memento mori of another time? Or because all photos embalm life, which makes postmortem photos doubly haunted, and thus windows on the afterworld, like the postmortem pictures in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others? Or is this just the commodification of grief—a traffic in tears?
“Poignant” is a pet word in the collectible postmortem photo category. As in: “POIGNANT POST MORTEM BABY,” an antique photograph of an infant, asleep forever in her toy casket. Her arched eyebrows give her a fretful look, querulous but a little quizzical, too, as if she’s startled to realize that death, unlike gas, doesn’t pass. The chrysanthemum-sized bows on her bonnet ties look tragicomically big beside her little doll head.
“Heartbreaking postmortem photo,” notes the item’s description, conceding the obvious. Should we read this as a moment of silence—a brief halt in the hum of commerce, in recognition of the fact that this lugubrious curio was the last, precious glimpse someone had of her child, before the undertaker dropped the lid? Or is it a lucky charm against the charge that buyers and sellers of such artifacts are trafficking in tears? Or just more of the mawkish morbidness that characterizes the American Way of Death?
(Note: This essay is an extended, extensively revised version of a piece previously published in the Australian magazine Photofile and subsequently reprinted in the technoculture webzine 21.c. Many thanks to Ashley Crawford, editor of both publications, for commissioning and editing the first version of “Ghost Babies.”)