We sometimes forget just how much the funeral industry has changed our relationship with the departed. It wasn't too long ago – especially in rural Appalachian communities, where change always comes a little later – that instead of sending a lost loved one to an undertaker to be prepared for burial, the family took care of that task in the home.
They would wash, dress, and display the body in the parlor, or death room, until the funeral took place at the local family church. Later they would inter the body, usually in a private family or small community plot, in a hand dug grave.
These practices led to traditions that are sometimes still practiced, even with the outsourcing of most of the tasks and preparations to morticians or undertakers.
Some families still maintain their family plots, or opt for burial in church graveyards, even with the growing popularity of commercial cemeteries where much of the maintenance is taken care of by others.
Some also still practice superstitions that originate from that era when bodies were kept in the home, such as covering mirrors during a funeral so the spirit won't get trapped within. (Just try to check your makeup with a pocket mirror during a funeral and see the scornful glares you'll draw from certain older folks.)
Funeral photographs are another tradition that persist in certain Appalachian families, and one of the many such traditions discussed by photographer and exhibit curator Carol Shutt in her exhibit at this month's Final Friday, Funeral Traditions of the South.
The tradition of death photography reaches back to the earliest days of the camera, however. In an age when cameras were not as ubiquitous as the ones we all carry in our pockets today, and set ups were large and pricey, the only opportunity some families might have to preserve an image of their loved one could be after they had passed.
With the long exposure time of old cameras, the sedentary subject was also much easier to capture clearly.
They can also be a divisive practice. Shutt said that among the families she discussed the practice with, some used the photographs as proof of death for family members who lived out of the state or region.
Poet Misty Skaggs, while remembering one of her late grandmothers, said while she was familiar with the tradition, it wasn't something her grandmother wanted to allow. She thought the practice was in poor taste, or, in her words, "just plain jakey."
Others, however, feel it can help provide closure, especially for family members who can't be present. That, Shutt surmised, may be one reason the practice still persists in some families today.
That need for remembrance and closure has also helped create new traditions, which Shutt – a retired RN and medical social worker – has captured in other photographs in her series. These include roadside crosses at the location of bike or automobile accidents and memorial graffiti.
In one of her photos, which captures words spray painted on a bridge overpass with messages like, “God Be With U Dustin,” and “Gone But never 4gotten,” along with various other R.I.P.s and memorials, she noted that the words were left alone by road crews who are tasked with cleaning and maintenance duties, which include removing graffiti.
In this case, she said, Dustin was a local teenage boy who perished in an ATV accident.
While it may seem a morbid topic to some, Grayson Gallery director Dan Click said he felt it was both an important and fascinating subject. Like Shutt, he feels it's important to document these traditions, both older ones before they are lost and emerging ones as they develop. He said it was also a great opportunity to focus on the work of one artist, something the Gallery hasn't really done as part of Final Friday events in the past, and something he has wanted to do with Shutt since meeting the photographer.
“We put out a call for artists submissions (for one of the Final Friday shows), and we usually only take three or four, but she showed up with twelve,” Click recalled of their first meeting. Since then, he said, she has contributed pieces to various shows, but he's always wanted to showcase one of her themed, documentary shows, like the funeral traditions or another series with ties to Appalachia, like her work documenting work on tobacco farms.
And though it's on a serious topic, the presentation also had moments of appropriate levity, just as any decent memorial service or bittersweet memory does.
She remembered getting the story from one family member, who contributed a funeral photo to the exhibit, of a split in the family around the issue of faith. Half the family belonged to a church that practiced snake handling, while the other half did not. The half who practiced the snake handling tradition wanted to “take up the box,” or place venomous snakes in the casket with the dead body, so that they would be set loose among those attending the funeral. The other half of the family wanted no such thing to occur.
This conflict of interest, she said, resulted in two cousins taking up posts around the casket all night to make sure someone from the other half of the family didn't place the snakes in the casket. It also led to two other cousins, from the other side of the family, taking up posts to make sure that, if the snakes got into the casket, no one took them out before the funeral service. She didn't say which side was successful, but the lack of snakes in the associated photograph seems to indicate which arm of the family won out.
Shutt's exhibitions are available for touring. You can reach her by writing to her at Carol Shutt, Photographer and Oral Historian, 358 Johnson Flat Road, Hillsboro, KY 41409, or via telephone at (606)780-9440.
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