Photographing the Dead


April 10, 1848

Baltimore, MD


My Dear Master Clare,

          Allow me to express my sincere condolences on the death of your father. Though I had not the pleasure of his acquaintance, your mother, in recognition of our closeness in childhood, has written to me that you are now your family’s sole support. Your artistic skills, she writes, surpass your tender years. As I am in need of such skills, I am emboldened to attempt to persuade you to join me here, in our more forgiving clime, where earth is clothed in spring and sunlight balms sorrow.

          Your mother may know of my painting from corpse, which I have renounced for the postmortem daguerreotype. To you, Charles, if I may, I sing its wonders! I bow before the silvered copper that steals, if you will, the last light of a beloved deceased. Imagine. Ponder. Believe that I am employed in the science of souls: with my humble camera, I walk into abodes of illness and tears, take from the bed or the cooling table the lifeless form, and deliver the very shadow of the departed! It is not a memorial, dear sir. The camera secures the emanation that lingers ere our precious dead enter the glory of Heaven forever.

          The imprint is exceedingly fragile. Without protection, it may be rubbed off with a finger. So it is encased, the finished artifact is a tiny coffin. But the shadow inside does not fade. When the case is opened its dark plush enhances the plate’s reflective surface, revealing the visage of one who has fled. Loss will not turn to forgetting, a cherished face to a phantom. You, dear Charles, may rouge the cheeks with your brush, color the shroud to a quilt—gingerly, delicately, as befits the gravity of the occasion and the fragility of the print—impress with your art that eternity is not a dream but a living truth! Upon the leather case you may etch—do you etch?—and paint a white rose for the purity of an innocent babe, a red rose for a sweetheart. And blue, the color of Heaven! How you may disperse all the hues of blue to lift grieving spirits, to honor the cut thread of life and insure the invisible cord. To promise the living that, in due time, they will join their dear kin in the house of the Lord, unvanquished and whole.

          As to the logistics, I refuse to shrink from what I must do to create the tangibility of a dead form we can see, always, with our own bodily eyes. Some are afraid, dear boy. But as artists and grievers ourselves, we embark with courage. I will ask that you drive the trap to the grievers’ home, for my strength is not what it was. Inside, we get the lay of the land: Does the mistress desire to pose with the babe? Is the corpse ravaged? Those painting from corpse today may engage us for a finished plate, in order to paint from an image and not from the truth, to escape messy death. We will not. We shun not. I can assure you that the corpse is nothing to fear: to handle the corpse. To arrange it, enacting our sacred duty ere the substance fades. We busy the homes of stopped clocks in mercy and courage. We inhale the fetid air, we let in the light; I insist, Charles, that I am buoyed by the proof of the fugitive nature of life. The doctor departs, the minister prays and withdraws. There is a hush, a weeping perhaps from another room. I—we are alone with the dead, at the gate. The bodies are laid on the couch as if they are asleep. For a sleeping portrait, position your camera at the foot of the lounge. If the family wishes to show them as if they are alive, you must open the eyes. This is achieved with a teaspoon. You take the handle and push the lower lids down. They will stay. But the upper you must push up far enough to reveal the eyeball, which you turn around to its proper place. You will have then a face nearly as natural as life. And posing them as you wish—so that they seem to be standing, for instance—is simple. You bend them until the joints are pliable. Then you arrange. You turn them over to eject any liquid, and when it is done, you wipe the dear face. For the standing effect, shoot head on to achieve the proper illusion. I have hung drums from the shoulder, wrapping the strap, resting the instrument next to the child. If a parent requests to pose with a child, prop corpses on laps, swathe them in swags, correct the empty cradles and tenantless beds with infants restored to peaceful sleep, a mother above, looking down, resting a loving hand on the cap. To a toddler she may offer a toy, press a bouquet of pansies into the plump little palm. We open our treasure chest, Charles, and bring forth a silk scarf to disguise the thick neck of diphtheria, we pad out the flesh of the wasted, we gentle, and, if need be, we caress the stiff open mouths shut. We dry the tears, lest they reproach Heaven. Death may claim our bodies, but not our souls! The corpse is our butterfly, our canvas, our block of stone, and in the solemnity of the passage, we enact, with all our powers, the very process of love.

          I once had a boy, a girl, twins, and a good wife. It was the summer disease, the blight of tainted milk took them, all three. First the boy in the morning, my daughter at noon, my wife in my arms as the colors of dawn painted the ceiling that, Charles, seemed to open up to the sky, the clouds, when my poor darling followed our babes and breathed her last. I raised my eyes and wept, rejoiced, as Heaven accepted my best life! Then the ceiling once again closed, pressed down upon me, and I was alone. When they were interred I could not be inside. I sat alone with the songs of thrushes in the clear evenings. By day I roamed. I was a schoolmaster in that first life, an expert in penmanship. Bah. I became an itinerant painter from corpse, seeking and learning. I studied the dead for hints, remnants of living breath. I listened to tales of exploits, legends of surpassing beauty, stories of height and width and hair of flame unlike any other—the exceptional acts and qualities of the lump in the parlor. Oh, Charles, was it my fault when the painting failed to impress, to exalt? They had often been dead for a week! And the misunderstanding, the family’s wish was for a representation excluding the death, as if it had never happened, as if—forgive them—we flies buzzing the firmament will ever fly! As if earth is its own eternity! As if Heaven fell. I tried to cajole, to charm the past onto my canvas. At night I prayed. I asked the Lord to speak, to direct me, and my prayers were answered. The camera came and all was changed. All was restored. I returned home to the clamoring thrushes in overgrown trees and chopped back the vines, dusted and aired the empty rooms, laid the twins’ nightdresses on their sweet cots, my sweet Patience’s dressing gown out on her side of our bed. How could I not? How, without them, could I feel they had lived? They were here! I was there! Death’s separation was futile. You will not berate me, I know. You will understand. You will travel south and fold up the clothes, assist me in my holy tasks. You will be my son, Charles, and I your father, and we two will travel this dark road, bring light, and rest. As we sleep the dead will brush us with wings, prepare us for the great journey, and solace the earthly veil. And one day, dear son, we two shall awake to see: the souls! The living dead! Can you not feel them?

          In anticipation,

          Your Cousin John

VARLEY O'CONNOR’s fifth novel, The Welsh Fasting Girl, will be published by Bellevue Literary Press in May 2019. Her shorter prose has appeared in The Missouri Review, The Sun, Santa Monica Review, The MacGuffin, Writer’s Chronicle, Publisher’s Weekly, and elsewhere. Since 2007, she has taught fiction and creative nonfiction at Kent State University and for the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts Program. In 2015, she was Visiting Writer at the University of California, Irvine and has also taught at Squaw Valley Community of Writers Summer Conference, Hofstra University, Brooklyn College, and Marymount Manhattan College. Read our review of O'Connor's The Welsh Fasting Girl in our new Reviews category.