Picks and Pans Review: Scoring in Heaven
These two fascinating books reflect varying perspectives on how Americans view death.
Burns, a New York City ophthalmologist, founded the Burns Archive, a comprehensive collection of medical photography. His unique book (Twelvetrees. $40), an album of memorial postmortem photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries, argues that "just as sex was the 19th century taboo, death has become the 20th century taboo." Where people once used images of their dead loved ones as a way of confronting their loss. Burns says, we approach death more indirectly: "Personal (intimate) death is not a socially acceptable topic."
Bunnen and Smith"s book (Aperture, $40) shows how people use grave ornaments and markers—from ridiculous to sublime—to lessen their grief. It is the result of a trip the two Atlanta photographers took through the South and Southwest in 1980, seeking photogenic grave sites.
Scoring in Heaven takes its name from a 1964 Tennessee headstone that shows a bowler making a strike, a mother's tribute to her 31-year-old son. Bowling, in fact, was one of the common themes—along with empty picture frames, empty chairs and beds, hands and telephones—encountered by Bunnen and Smith. But they also, spotted a six-foot Styrofoam Bugs Bunny, a huge cowboy boot filled with daisies and the ultimate in one for the road—tequila bottles.
If many of the Bunnen-Smith pictures suggest a certain whimsy toward death, the photographs in Burns's collection are deeply sentimental. The Victorians took their grieving seriously—and formally. The mourning period for a child. Burns notes in his absorbing text, was two years and for a sibling one year. Small photographs of the deceased were often carried in lockets, kept close to the body for greater intimacy.
Photography was costly, and these photos were sometimes the only remembrances families had of their dead' loved ones. In 1846 a noted Boston photo studio advertised, "We take great pains to have Miniatures of Deceased Persons agreeable and satisfactory, and they are often so natural."
To modern eyes, these pictures are often unsettlingly morbid. But they are never sensationalistic. In the ca. 1895 photo "Young Girl on Couch with Her Doll," a pretty child appears to be taking an afternoon nap dressed in her Sunday best. A ca. 1890 photo titled "From Carriage to Coffin" shows a very young child "sleeping" in a carriage while a coffin waits in the background.
In some ways the images in Scoring in Heaven are more disturbing. As these long-departed ones faced the end, did they realize they might become "immortalized" by a gigantic Bugs or have an empty bird cage placed on their grave or be remembered by a photo on their headstone taken while they were feeding the chickens?