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?


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.


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.


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.


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

SusanSueLaurelJuliaMargaret copy

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!

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah Bain November 6, 2017 at 10:55 am

It’s 2:48 am, the perfect time for me to talk to the dead because they are the only other ones awake in this house besides me. I have so much to say about this and so little to offer. That picture of the mother with her triplets is devastating in so many wrong and right ways. In many ways, it’s the most disturbing one, but then the one with the little boy and his sister is soul-crushing too. I am so mixed about feelings surrounding pictures of the dead, but I look every time. I am drawn in because what else is left? We have moved so far away from pictures of the dead to the near and absolute shuttering of emotions around grief. And perhaps the issue is that there is no balance to be found, there is no one way or another because if we allowed ourselves to sit in the devastation of loss for too long, we ourselves would be lost forever. The pain unthinkable and so likely, for many, the only way to move forward, to press on is to simply shut it down, turn it off, look away. Except I can’t do any of that. So I return to the mother and her triplets and can’t help but wonder too about the living one, what became of him/her–your life given to you with so much death to have to wear as your legacy.


Susan Henderson November 6, 2017 at 12:00 pm

This is beautifully put, Sarah. At first I found the picture of mom with her babies devastating, as well as my need to look at it. And then I thought of what it would be like to be that husband with all the hopes and the planning that must have gone on for months, and then what if that most devastating night of your life is just cleaned up and swept away? What if you feel like a dad of three but never have any physical confirmation or remembrance of those lives? And I realized it’s a beautiful and in some ways a grounding thing for that surviving baby to know of her siblings, to have a photo of herself with the mother that gave her life, and to have a picture of a grief that must have loomed over the family from that day on. It just gives something to those two family members where there are no words.

In some ways it seems so much more normal for a mom to rock her child those last times and to put her lips against her child’s hair. And it seems like it would help the grieving to see a physical reminder of that time, and to know, in the end, we couldn’t save her but I held and loved her as my very last acts.


GC Smith November 6, 2017 at 4:59 pm

I’m by DNA check 90% Irish and 7% other British (presumably Scots) and a lapsed Roman Catholic. At seventy-nine I face limited mortality (maybe 25 or so more years) perhaps some fewer. For most of my life I’ve ignored death except for the social niceties of attending friends and colleagues funerals or those of their close ones.

As an atheist I think we’re here and then we’re gone. We do not remember pre birth and we wont remember post death. So, I want the cheapest possible disposal of me, likely cremation. Hopefully, our children, who are close friends, will be sorry to let me go but I want them to leave it at that, no maudlin memorials and certainly no photos.

I like living and I like remembering the good and the bad. I remember my Father as the best man I’ve ever known. I remember my Mother as loving and kind when I was a child but revealed as very nasty as I matured. That has always been a sadness. But mostly I look back on my life and the people in it with fondness. And I look forward at what’s to come.

If I’m loved, if I’m appreciated, if I’m someone people want to interact I’d like it to me known to me while I live and then I’ll be satisfied. So far I am that. So, except for the fact that death is a fact I have no further interest it as a subject. In sum, death and death rituals hold no interest for me. However, murder IMO, especially fictional murder, is a whole different and interesting subject. It’s why I write mysteries.

p.s. The other 3% of my DNA is either Finnish or Russian.


GC Smith November 6, 2017 at 5:02 pm

error: “I’d like it to (me) be known to me”


Susan Henderson November 6, 2017 at 6:02 pm

I don’t feel concerned about my own death now that my kids are grown, and I’m not sentimental or worried about what happens to my body afterwards. But I care deeply about loss, about complicated grief, and how my loved ones do or don’t heal from that loss.


A. F. Compson November 22, 2017 at 4:36 pm

I can completely relate, Susan. I don’t care when I die or what happens to my body after death. All I care about is spreading compassion and strength to those left behind.

As someone who is rather virgin to grief, I fear loss and being left behind. Frankly, I can see why people photographed themselves with dead relatives. Letting go of attachment seems to be one of the hardest human experiences.


Susan Henderson November 23, 2017 at 2:01 am

Yes! To all of this. Thank you for finding the words to express how I’ve been feeling.


Ric Marion November 7, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Well, those photos sent me down memory lane. In college, my favorite professor, Dr. Jim Hart assigned Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy as an example of non-linear non-fiction that still makes sense. There are many pictures of dead children in caskets. I had to hunt through my cupboards to find the book (it is too large to fit nicely in my bookcase). I recall, at the time, being appalled by the images. Which, as in your case, could have sent me down the path of researching and discovering the different ways in which we grieve. Alas, it did not.
Still, it did create a curiosity that surfaces when I come across a reference or aside into such customs. Like the Victorian death lockets where one keeps a lock of hair from the deceased in a gold clasp close to their hearts, or the death masks – Napoleon’s being the most famous.
Nowadays, customs are changing yet again. In my area, three day wakes and embalming have given way to quick cremations and no services at all. This is mostly due to the high costs. Yet, according to a mortician friend, it leaves the family with no time to grieve, to come to grips with what has happened and may, in the long run, cause more grief.
Incidentally, the same mortician friend told me my Mother, who is still with us at 94, put in her funeral instructions that ALL of her pallbearers MUST wear a suit. She apparently was at a funeral where a cousin with a sweatshirt and flip flops was recruited to help carry Grandma. I asked how would she know? And he said, “She told me she would come back and haunt me if I didn’t make sure to do it.”
Yep, sounds like something my Mom would insist on.


Susan Henderson November 7, 2017 at 1:58 pm

Oh, wow, what wonderful and unexpected stories! I love your mom’s insistence on suits!

Just fyi, LitHub put out a call recently for essays by male writers. Maybe check out the work they publish (it’s excellent) and see if you have anything that might fit?

Off to look up Napoleon death masks…


Valerie C Sweeney November 12, 2017 at 7:47 pm

My mother too threatened to come back and haunt me if we did not follow her directions for her funeral. I don’t know if she did because I FOLLOWED THE DIRECTIONS. Of course. (To this day however, I regret burying her in pantyhose.)


Susan Henderson November 12, 2017 at 9:13 pm

I’m dying here… the pantyhose!


Marilyn Cole November 7, 2017 at 7:30 pm

I’m one of those people with delayed reactions. When death has happened in my family–except with my daughter–I stayed in control from the start, gone through the steps of all that had to be done as if I had taken a Valium (something I never would do), suspended in mid air without feeling much of anything. Then, days later, the realization of the loss, of knowing I will never hear that voice calling, that I will never get another hug or see them again, sets in. Instant depression. And I internalize. Do not talk about it, or show it, and life goes on. I miss my dad every single day since he died in 1995. I have never known a better man.

I have a hard time dealing with pictures, especially of my daughter. I love seeing her full of life, but it saddens me knowing all the plans she had, and the life she was making for herself and her two boys. Then, there are the pictures that show her looking differently as her illness and treatment progressed, but still smiling, doing things for her boys. Those hurt. But, I think it would be unbearable for me to see a photo of her, lifeless. The memory of my father, and later my mother, in the open caskets…the way they looked is embedded in my mind forever, I don’t think I could deal with photos of them looking like that. Even seeing the ones you have shown of people I don’t know, and long gone, makes me very sad…especially those of young ones, and the one of the mom with her babies…unforgettable. But I do understand your point about giving the dad, left behind, a remembrance, a confirmation of what existed, even if so briefly.

I cannot wait to read your book, not only because you wrote it, but the subject matter is intriguing and fascinating, and I need to know all about Mary. And now that I know the lineage of her name, it’s become a bit personal.


Susan Henderson November 7, 2017 at 9:27 pm

Oh, same here with the stoical and high-functioning initial reaction and then the private whammy days later.

About our children and the people we feel most fiercely protective about, I get socked in the gut just looking at pictures of them when they were young. There’s a picture of when my oldest son first got braces and he looks so vulnerable it crushes me. And he’s perfectly healthy, and still.

I’m not for or against the idea of people taking these kinds of photos, but they are definitely unforgettable. They worm their way in, touching all my most guarded places. Grief is a living thing, in my mind. You think you’ve healed from something and then an article in the newspaper or a song or a Kodak commercial can bring it right back like a fresh wound. I think it’s why our rituals will always be inadequate.

That’s the sweetest about your dad.


Christopher Lincoln November 9, 2017 at 9:49 pm

Just a few generations back, people who had passed would be laid out on the dining room table while a family member might make a pine coffin and dig a plot in the family cemetery. We’ve separated ourselves from the most natural thing in the world to the point where it seems unnatural. I think I am sadder for us than the people in those pictures.


Susan Henderson November 9, 2017 at 9:56 pm

That’s beautiful and profound, and I think you might be right.


Christopher Lincoln November 9, 2017 at 10:29 pm

I heard somewhere that you have a new book out. : )

I’ll be getting a copy for sure.


Susan Henderson November 9, 2017 at 11:40 pm

You are awesome.


Billie Hinton November 10, 2017 at 2:04 pm

What a fascinating post. I am struck by the peacefulness of the faces of the dead children and the pure shock and grief in the eyes of the living who are with them. I’m curious how the expressions would change if the beloved family members who died were older rather than very young – or did they take those photos at all?

The two family members closest to me who have died are my grandma and my dad, and both lived long lives (my dad not as long as we would have wanted) and both deaths were expected which gave us time to be with them and say goodbye. My dad died in his own bed in my parents’ house with my mom and brother and I holding his hands. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. It felt both right and difficult. The hospice team who worked with him and with my mom during his decline were amazing people – they were truly a gift and brought so much wisdom and comfort to the process.

All my life the hardest deaths for me have been the animals I’ve loved and lived with. They share so much of our lives and while I experience a huge amount of communication with my animals, in the end they can’t tell us what their wishes are and for me that is part of what makes saying goodbye so excruciatingly difficult.

I spend a lot of time when grieving telling stories about the deceased and sharing my memories, and for me this helps a lot.

This year a good friend and colleague died of ovarian cancer. She was the mother of three beautiful children, two of whom are the same age as my daughter, and she and I talked a lot in past years about the process of “launching” and wanting our children to make successful launches into the world. Her twins were autistic and she was told at their birth that they would never talk and would need to be institutionalized. She quickly became an expert in spectrum disorders and both her sons are in college and the most amazing young men. Her death was incredibly difficult for me – I think seeing her children having to deal with it was the most painful part – and I felt the loss of her and also the loss of time with her in the last months of her life. We were both busy and both caught up in the launching of our children – and I wish now I had made time to spend with her before and after the diagnosis.

I found myself needing to do something very specific after her death and service. We were both Jungian-based sandplay therapists and I hired an artist, Georgia Mann, who makes gorgeous miniatures for sandplay and for individuals as well, to create a figure of Dori. Georgia made the most beautiful miniature, named it the Light Bearer, and now Dori is in my sandplay collection, bringing the archetype of loving mother and fierce advocate energy to my clients and to me. I had Georgia make one for the family as well and I will be giving it to them in December.

Coming back to the photos, I think the most painful thing for me as I look at them is the fact that the children did not get to live their full lives. Somehow when someone gets to live a long life it feels like they’ve had the chance to engage with the world and to have had some say in the way they “are” on the earth. Though of course there are many ways in which that isn’t even true for all who do live long lives.

I think death is just hard for us. We have to grapple with what it means and the ripples that creates for each of us, in our own circumstances and lives. In a way, the beauty of death is that it pushes us to try and make sense of it.

Wow. So much to think about and ponder. Thank you for such a provocative post and questions!

And for my usual mom of a child out in the world note:

I don’t think my son is coming home for Thanksgiving and I am fighting the urge to send him an entire Thanksgiving meal, care package, and Christmas decorations via FedEx. He is so swamped with work I don’t think he even minds the thought of not being here, and I know for sure he thinks my need to send things is Over The Top, but it is hard to give up the caretaking role and let them call me if they want or need things.

I am obsessed with setting up our guest room and the entire upstairs – suddenly there are more beds and I think I’m actually unconsciously preparing for grandchildren! Possibly because that is more fun than feeling the empty spaces. It is still hard to see them.


Susan Henderson November 10, 2017 at 2:15 pm

This is so beautiful, I can’t speak. I’ll come back later. xo


Billie Hinton November 10, 2017 at 4:12 pm

You gave such a beautiful opening – I took that ball and ran with it! 🙂


Susan Henderson November 11, 2017 at 1:43 pm

Your comments tapped every tender place in me. And I kept coming back to respond and then I’d get another lump in the throat. My oldest won’t be with us for Thanksgiving either. This is the first time. And what you said about it being hard to give up the caretaker role. Yes. He called from his road trip the other day and told the best stories. I love that he’s on this crazy adventure. I love the looseness of his journey–so unlike our family for generations to be so unplanned and freewheeling. And yet, I’m not intertwined with his stories anymore. It’s a different kind of grief. It’s laced with joy. This is what we aimed for, right? The successful launch of our children into the world, creating their own stories.

And our animals. I have never grieved the loss of a person who passed with the intensity as I’ve grieved my lost pets.

I’m touched by the story of your sandplay and your last moments with your father. And this, which is everything: We have to grapple with what it means and the ripples that creates for each of us.


Billie Hinton November 11, 2017 at 2:09 pm

I love what you wrote about your son calling and telling the best stories and how much you enjoyed hearing them. It’s funny, I was thinking right before I read your comment about how it feels now when my mom comes to visit with us and I tell my stories, my daughter tells hers, and my mom tells hers. Some are known tales and with my mom we want to hear them all again and again, because we know at 84 any telling could be the last one, but at the same time we have soaked her words into our selves and we tell her stories too now, and in that way, she will live on. The stories about my dad are treasures now, and a funny thing happens sometimes – the day after he died this little black-capped chickadee came to my kitchen window and sat and looked in at me for the longest time, and then followed me to the laundry room window and did the same. I felt it was my dad, and now, sometimes, when my mom is there and we’re telling stories, I’ll see the same bird outside the kitchen window and it always feels like my dad has made an appearance.

But what I mean to say about the telling of stories is that it is so innate and so important to our lives I think. Like arteries that feed us something we need.

My dad asked my mom before he died to change his burial wishes – he decided at the last minute that he wanted to be cremated, which she has already planned for herself, and he asked that when my mom dies, we three children carry some of his ashes and her ashes with us on every trip we take and sprinkle them, so that he and my mom can continue traveling and seeing the world along with us. I think that’s going to make the loss of my mom easier than it would otherwise be, and I’m so grateful he came up with that before he left us.


Susan Henderson November 11, 2017 at 2:23 pm

Oh, the little black-capped chickadee! The arteries! The traveling ashes! xo


Valerie C Sweeney November 12, 2017 at 8:01 pm

I am terrified to die – both because I don’t know what happens after and because of what I leave behind. In my typically stubborn way, instead of just ignoring it when I wake up at 3am in an existential funk, I decided to stare my biggest fear in the face and volunteer at a hospice. Some of this was prompted by what it was like living through my mom’s illness and death; I wanted to help someone else the way people that helped me…helped me, if that makes sense. Some of this was prompted by the fact that while sometimes I am empathetic to the point of idiocy, I am really good in a crisis so I thought I could be useful in a way a lot of people can’t. It has been life changing. It has been hard and sad and absolutely life-changing. It hasn’t solved the worries I have about death but it has given me strength to continue thinking about death and learning to try to not be so scared of it. I agree that our society has distanced ourselves from the reality of death in ways that are not helpful nor conducive to grieving properly. Caitlin Doughty’s book that I read recently, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, speaks to this in great detail. I recommend it highly. And I cannot wait to read your book.


Susan Henderson November 12, 2017 at 9:17 pm

I didn’t know you volunteered at a hospice. Tell me what you do there. What’s the environment like? Do you feel like you’re helping the dying, their surviving members, or the staff the most? I’m in awe of you for doing that, especially knowing it’s your great fear. Going to check out that book right now…


Valerie C Sweeney November 15, 2017 at 3:36 am

When I started, I did what’s called candlelights. If a patient in hospice is actively dying and they need someone to sit with them because the family cant or there is no family, they’d call me and I’d go hang out. Literally just sit with them. Usually at that point they are not conscious or responsive but I’d sit and read out loud or whatever. Then I decided I was ready to help particular patients so I was assigned a woman who needed someone to help her so her husband could have some time away from caring for her. I visited her once a week for like a few hours, and we’d hang out, talk, I’d run errands for her, laundry, stuff like that. We organized all her user manuals for her house stuff – stuff that I knew didnt matter but made her feel better. Her husband died suddenly so then I was really glad to be there with her. She was wonderful and we got pretty close; she died in the spring, and I miss her very much. I have had a few other very short term patients but no one else long term yet. And sometimes I just go answer phones and whatever at the inpatient unit when they need someone. The nurses found out I am pretty handy with Word and other software, so I will do stuff like set up forms for them or troubleshoot their computer system or make copies, clerical stuff like that. I like feeling like I am helping people who need it – both the patients and the nurses. Death brings out the crazy in people, though; it brings out the best and the worst in families.


Susan Henderson November 15, 2017 at 1:50 pm

I love that you’re reading out loud to them even if they might not be conscious. And I love that you organized meals, knowing they’d not be needed but offered a sense of peace.

Your statement about death bringing out the crazy in people has always fascinated me. I suppose death highlights the surviving members’ feelings of who was more loved, who took on more responsibility, people trying to right wrongs or make lifelong injustices fair by how they divvy up chores and belongings.


Valerie C Sweeney November 15, 2017 at 3:41 am

so yeah none of it is exciting or glamorous, but I am happy to do it.


Valerie Sweeney November 15, 2017 at 2:17 pm

One of the things that fascinates me and that I first realized when my mom was dying was that sometimes people have unexpected strengths. I handled all the practical medical stuff – paperwork and insurance and transplant listing and then when that was no longer feasible, hospice care, etc. My brother – who is a financial whiz for a living – left it to me, offering advice or whatever, but he clearly saw that I had a good grip on it and was a good, patient, stubborn advocate for my mother’s care. And this man who was and is a big deal in the world of economics was the one my mother wanted to help bathe her, and help her to the bathroom, etc. If anyone else tried – even if willing – everyone wound up embarrassed. But my mother felt comfortable with my little brother, for whatever reason – and he did it all, unfailingly, uncomplainingly, with grace, strength, and humor. He was all of 24 at the time which made it even more remarkable to me. He was a ROCK. On the other hand, my older brother, while I adore him, was fairly useless altogether. You just never know how people are going to react to the ultimate stress.


Susan Henderson November 15, 2017 at 2:51 pm

Sometimes people have unexpected strengths. Love that. And your advocacy. And the story of your little brother. Wow.


A. F. Compson November 22, 2017 at 4:30 pm

So profound to look at these photos! My English professor during my freshman year of college taught me about these post-mortem photos for the first time. She said they used wire stands to hold the dead bodies upright. It really makes you think about the connection between consciousness and the body. We are just bundles of Devine energy within a carbon-based casing! Bodies are nothing more than suits that we wear for a few decades and then leave behind.


Susan Henderson November 23, 2017 at 1:59 am

I love that observation about being bundles of divine energy, thinking of our bodies as suits. I’ve often thought of them as shells. And it’s funny how much our culture focuses on the shell.

Glad you’re here!


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