Thursday, January 07, 2010

All My Dead Relatives

It’s my theory that every family has one—a historian—a self-appointed someone who is the collector of family history, stories, trivia, and pictures. I’m that person in my generation of the family.

I remember sitting for hours in my mother’s bedroom, looking through photos albums she had painstakingly put together through all the years of my life. My parents owned a Camera Shop and did photo-finishing back in the day before digital, so you can imagine how many photos we collected over my lifetime. As I would browse through the pictures, Mother would tell me the stories.

I knew all about her baby sister, Ethel Louise who was stillborn; how Grandpa Heffner and his brother, Herb, and sister, Ethel, were left in the Soldier’s and Sailors Orphanage when they were kids and how Grandpa ran away and joined the circus; she told me about Grandma Heffner working in the marshmallow factory in Indianapolis until the doctor said she needed fresh country air and they moved to Hancock’s Chapel where Herb and Ethel were living with the Charley Wolfe family.

I knew stories about the Brobst family, too, because Daddy had lived a half block away from Mother once both families moved to Alexandria, where I grew up. Grandpa Brobst used to be in charge of lighting the gas lamps downtown every evening so he knew how walk on stilts; I heard about how he and Grandma had just come home married one day after being witnesses for a couple of their friends; and about the staring contest Daddy once had with Mother’s cousin Roberta that ended with the payment of a kiss.

Not all those stories are told in pictures, but they were all told while I looked at the pictures, and I remembered them. Many of them well enough that I wrote a book about them—Leona and Me, Helen Marie—an early draft of which I gave to members of my family for Christmas the year after Mother died.

One of the oddities about our family photos are all the pictures those albums contain of my dead relatives. No, you might night have understood me—when I say dead, I mean dead. . . in their caskets. I never considered it an oddity while I was growing up, but I have photos of dead baby Ethel Louise, grandmas and grandpas, and even a few greats, all decked out in their final repose, the walls behind their open coffins filled with flowers. Sometimes the shots are of them alone. Others have various once-living relatives posed beside them in a final family portrait.

Okay, I’ll admit, when I was growing up I never saw this as odd. It was quite normal to me. I’d actually posed in some of those photos. I’d even taken them with my own camera as an adult. It wasn’t until I got married and my husband saw my dead relatives that I found out it was strange.
“Why on earth did your family take pictures of dead people?” he asked me the first time he saw them.

“Doesn’t your family?” I asked.

Apparently not! He thinks it’s gruesome. I think it’s my final memory—a memory I guess he’d rather not have of anyone, not even my beloved dead ancestors. Well, I guess that’s okay with me, but I just took a trip down memory lane, taking one more look at all those dead relatives in yet another album my Mother spent hours putting together, and I found a treasure there. Photos of myself and my parents, poetry my mother had written to commemorate each person upon their death, and clippings from the newspaper and memorial services about those people I loved from so long ago. I found it comforting.

My only concern has been who among my family will care in the future about these people who have always been so important to me. My sons are all adopted, and they are—well—SONS! By the time they might decide perhaps they do care, I could be long dead and gone, and the stories dead with me.

I don’t want these stories to die! Maybe that’s why I’ve been sharing photos with my living relatives the past few weeks via the internet. It’s probably why I wrote the novel in the first place. And maybe even these blogs allow me to record a little history for the posterity of my brothers and sister, nieces and nephews. That way they, too, can know of our history. They can see the photos of our dead ancestors—I’ll save you the trauma of actually seeing the photos of the dead relatives, opting instead to post photos of when they were living.

And I hope all this storytelling will entice someone among my living relatives to become the next keeper, the family historian who will allow our family to live on into the next generation and beyond.


L.T. Elliot said...

Those pictures are fascinating. I'm not sure how I feel about taking pictures of my deceased loved ones but then again, my family was raised to view death as so final. I know better for myself but it's still an issue.
I'm glad you're sharing these and remembering.

Ambrosia said...

Taking pictures of dead people in their caskets used to not be abnormal. If I am remembering correctly, in the 1800's it was something that was frequently done.

I think that those pictures can remind us the death is not the end. It is the beginning. The beginning of something both mysterious and wonderful.

Dreamer said...

I have heard this was a quite common practice not so very long ago. We took pictures of my MIL when she passed a few years ago. I still have not seen them. They were not on my camera. Still, very intriguing!

Tammy said...

I knew that pictures of the dead were traditions in many families. But I'm not even good at viewings or funerals. I think having pictures of dead family members would not be good for me.

But if it feels good to you, I say keep the tradition!

Tammy and Parker
@ParkerMama on Twitter