In the late 1800s, Edward Bok, the reform-minded editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, launched a crusade against, of all things, the parlour—that pretentious little room, as he saw it, reserved by the Victorians for formal Sunday teas and displaying their dead. Better, he thought, to banish the old-time hats and coats and the corpses in favour of a space for routine family life—call it, he suggested, the living room. The wordplay caught on, part of a trend driven by lengthening life expectancies that made death itself an unmentionable. “In the 19th century, sex was the taboo,” says Stanley Burns, an eye surgeon and medical historian. “In the 20th century, it was death.” Nowhere, oddly enough, was the shift more pronounced than in family photographs.
A hundred years ago, capturing images of dead relatives was de rigueur. Dad’s eyes were glued shut, his mouth closed, his limbs posed in such a manner as to suggest a quick catnap; in one famous example, the deceased sits with a newspaper clasped in his hands as though just nodding off. Widows wore lockets with the dead faces of their husbands, mothers the images of their dead infants—sometimes with open eyes painted in and rose tincture on their cheeks. Yet changing attitudes soon saw post-mortem photography go the way of the parlour.
Now, research suggesting that families benefit from photographs of deceased offspring has brought the practice back. “There’s that pivotal moment, especially after a stillbirth, where mum all of a sudden won’t remember what her baby looked like—and there’s panic,” says Mary MacCormick, head of the Canadian Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths. Memories of the traumatic days surrounding a difficult birth can also exaggerate a baby’s flaws, haunting parents for years. Hospital staff have battled these anxieties by giving families bereavement kits containing locks of hair, hand- or footprints, and Polaroids. Recently, though, so-called infant bereavement photography has become the domain of professionals.
One charity, Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, has connected families with photographers since 2005. It started in Denver, Colo., shortly after co-founder Cheryl Haggard, then 37, learned her infant son Maddux wouldn’t survive his first week, and decided to hire the same photographer whose shots of newborns graced the walls of her maternity ward. Sandy Puc’ (pronounced putsch), a specialist in child portraiture, didn’t know what to expect when she arrived to meet Cheryl and her husband, Mike; she soon learned they wanted images of Maddux alive on life support, then “more intimate” shots, as Cheryl puts it—“those skin on skin Madonna portraits”—after disconnecting him. “I did his hands and feet and his little ears, his nose—I photographed every single part that I could so they would have all of it,” says Puc’, who then left the room. Forty-five minutes later, she was invited back. “It was so unearthly,” Puc’ recalls. “Here is this beautiful mom, bare skin, bare chest, with this tiny little sleeping angel in her arms.” Maddux was dead.
Within weeks, Puc’ and Haggard had founded Now I Lay Me Down, relying on just a few photographers. They now have more than 5,000 in over 25 countries, including Canada. The free sessions—valued at between $1,000 and $1,800—are available for offspring aged 25 weeks of gestation and up and have been provided for babies dead as long as 10 days. Images are normally black and white to de-emphasize the discolourations associated with stillborns, say, and computer software is used to soften some detail.
Chicago-based Todd Hochberg has shot deceased infants for over 10 years but uses a documentary style that puts his subjects within a hospital context alongside parents, extended family and health care professionals. “It’s a record of their time together with their baby,” he says. “To validate that they are parents—that this life does matter.” Guenther Krueger, a Ph.D. candidate studying bereavement at Simon Fraser University, says such images help families cope. Though grief was once thought similar to physical healing—“you have a terrible time but you get over it”—Krueger says that’s not what happens: “Parents incorporate this child into their lives.” Burns, who has archived thousands of antique medical photographs and has written books on post-mortem photography, is more blunt: “We are as important as the number of photographs taken of us—to have no pictures at all in this culture is not to have existed.”