Photographs of dead relatives

This is you and your daddy

My Mother is a keen curator of what M used to call ‘photographs of dead relatives’.

Sepia miniature of unidentified raggy-arsed forebear? Mother’s all over it like Old Etonians in Parliament. She’s got the census from 1743 and worked out it’s a great, great, great uncle’s love child. She’s been on a pilgrimage to an outpost north of Inverness to visit the grave.

The significance of this ancestor differs among family members – most couldn’t give a monkey’s, but for others (well, my Mother), they are an important part of the jigsaw of family history.

I’m doing some historical research of my own at the moment, for a piece of writing I’m doing about Newcastle. This morning I’ve been in the city looking at other people’s raggy-arsed forebears in a collection of photographs from 1860. In one or two of them I thought I recognised myself – the bone structure of the face, the slightly hooded eyes. It is possible, I conceded, that I may be looking at a forebear without realising it. It is certainly conceivable that I am related to a Geordie fishwife, somewhere down the line.

Being in Newcastle always brings out a yearning for M, but I have begun to notice that He has started to take on saintly, almost mythical status in my mind. Thoughts of Him infuse everything I do.

It struck me today, as looked at the photographs and wandered around the Quayside, trying to absorb the history of the place, that M is now ‘a dead relative’. All that remains of Him for my daughter are scant memories (if any memories at all), photographs and some personal effects. I can record, recount, curate and archive His life until my fingers bleed, but for her, He will always be in 2D.

Yes, she looks like Him. Her kids will probably look like Him. Her kids kids will probably look like Him. He ‘lives on’, as people keep telling me.

But the fact is that He has already become a photograph of a dead relative to add to the pile.

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6 thoughts on “Photographs of dead relatives

  1. When I go to auctions and estate sales I see what happen to these photographs when they fall into the hands of “family members – most couldn’t give a monkey’s, “. Try to make sure they go to people who will treat them as the treasure they are.

    • Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I absolutely agree that they are treasures. In the light of the loss of my husband, photographs have taken on even more of a treasured status – they are all we have left of a wonderful man. Nice site yourself, by the way. X

  2. I became a bit obsessed about losing all the digital photos and spent ages backing them up and having prints made. It’s back to my need to have ‘things’ to keep reminding me that he existed. Went slightly ott and started getting Groupon vouchers for photo montages – not my thing normally- they haven’t actually seen light of day, but feel strangely content knowing I have them. God, this grief thing drives you bonkers doesn’t it? Xx

    • I think this is what I mean by M taking on saintly, mythical status – I too feel the need to preserve, archive like a maniac. He had pix on His mobile phone which I couldn’t access because Orange couldn’t ‘hack’ into the phone – I feel bereft at having lost those pix. The bloody dog chewed one of Him when He was younger – I have meticulously tried to restore it. But as the previous commenter said, they are treasures, worth more than gold. Love x

  3. For me, I find as time goes on those kinds of images hint at an illusion of proximity like you might be able to somehow access that reality again….”I wish I may, I wish I might”. Near and yet so far, it is bitter sweet.
    I used to date a boy when I was in high school whose family had a tradition of taking pictures of dead relatives in their coffins. I thought it quite odd and only discovered years later that it wasn’t a behaviour that his family was alone in practicing. I still don’t understood the need to preserve that leave-taking. Much better to commemorate the life rather than the rite that marked the “official” onset of one’s sorrow.

    • How weird – and distinctly unsettling. I agree photographs, especially good, colour ones of the type I have of M, give rise to a certain amount of hope that the person may somehow not really be gone for good. When someone is so vivid in a depiction, it’s hard to believe that they’re dead. I wish, I wish, I wish…

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