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November 2017

Question of the Month: Post-Mortem Photos

by Susan Henderson on November 6, 2017

What are your curiosities regarding the dead and the dying and our customs for mourning them?

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The Flicker of Old Dreams, my new novel that’s narrated by a mortician, explores all kinds of death—the death of a town and a way of life, the death of a body, the death of a spirit.

I’ve been obsessed all my life with looking closely at the things others find uncomfortable or hurry past. And our often-peculiar rituals for mourning the dead have particularly consumed me.

And so, when I first stumbled upon a post-mortem photo, I couldn’t turn away.

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This mother died in childbirth. Two of the triplets died as well.

Sit with that shock for a moment, the bereaved family members dressing and arranging them so lovingly. Needing to do this though it must have also felt wrong. And then to see that death, and not peace, crept into the mother’s eyes.

But it’s the photos of the living with the dead that wreck me. Just imagining the grief.

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This little boy is holding his deceased sibling. All of these pictures, by the way, come from The Thanatos Archive and appear in the book, Beyond the Dark Veil.

It’s jarring, isn’t it? The photo is both tender and gruesome, an expression of profound grief and also a portrait of our greatest fear. I wonder, when I look at photos like these, whether it soothed some family members while haunting others.

In my book, a post-mortem photo is taken in the opening pages. And it is touched upon throughout the novel. I wanted to walk as close as I could to death and to grief and see what it all had to say to me.

Talk to me in the comments about what these photos stir in you. Tell me stories about your family rituals for mourning, or for bypassing that painful process.

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As always, I’ll share the books I’ve read since my last post:

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing
Ronlyn Domingue, The Plague Diaries: Keeper of Tales Trilogy
Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird
Stephen King, Firestarter
Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark
Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead
Marcia Butler, The Skin Above My Knee
Lidia Yuknavitch, The Misfit’s Manifesto

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Oh, and I owe some thank you’s:

To Jill Tardiff, National Reading Group Month Chair, for inviting me to be a part of a panel celebrating the WNBA’s centennial and National Reading Group’s 10th anniversary. It was a pleasure to talk books, writing and publishing with Susan Larson, Laurel Davis Huber, Julia Franks, Margaret Wrinkle, and a great joy to spend time with friends (Melissa Connolly, Wayétu Moore, and Kimberly Wetherell) who showed up for support.

Thanks also to Library Journal, Virginia Stanley (Director of Library Marketing), and Bookish Roundup for the kind words.

And last but not least, gratitude to those of you who’ve pre-ordered The Flicker of Old Dreams and added it to your GoodReads lists!

That’s it for now. I look forward to your stories in the comments section!

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