Secure the Shadow

Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in AmericaSecure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America by Jay Ruby

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book has been on my TBR shelf for a very long time In fact, it’s been there so long that it’s gone out of date. When Secure the Shadow was published in 1995, no one carried internet-connected cameras in their pockets. The ability to photograph a deceased loved one — without the intercession of a photographer, funeral director, or photo processing — along with the ability to upload those photos and share them across social media has changed the game. I saw someone sharing photos of her father’s funeral on Facebook just yesterday. (For the record, they were tasteful and beautiful.)

Ruby tries to refute the notion that postmortem photos were rare when photography was new. To support that, he resorts to photographers’ records of the number of times they traveled to take such photos in family homes. Not many of those photographs have survived to come down to us now, probably because intervening generations found them in “bad taste” and disposed of them.

One of the chapters talks about photo plaques on cemetery monuments, including the rare instances of postmortem photos on gravestones. It doesn’t couch those images in the larger context of statues of dead people on their own graves, whether “sleeping” babes or women holding their dead infants while they lay on their deathbeds. That subject remains to be explored.

The part of the book that fascinated me most was the final chapter, which examined the resurgence of artful photos taken of stillborn or infants who die shortly after birth. Many of the psychological justifications for taking those photos — whether the families want them at the time or not — could apply to any postmortem photos. I think there is a market to be explored.

Overall, I found the text of the book repetitive, either because each chapter was designed to stand alone or because the author didn’t read his book from beginning to end as I did. The information is interesting, but the books from the Thanatos Archives have better illustrations.

I sometimes find copies of the book in secondhand bookstores with photography sections (although it is heavier on text than photographs).  Amazon has some for sale, but they are pricey: https://amzn.to/2ThSZef.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

About Loren Rhoads

I'm the editor of Tales for the Camp Fire: An Anthology Benefiting Wildfire Relief. I'm also author of 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die and Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, as well as a space opera trilogy. I'm co-author of a series about a succubus and her angel.
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2 Responses to Secure the Shadow

  1. Lauren, I am surprised you didn’t toss this one out before reading when you were getting rid of stuff, but I am glad you didn’t. I have mixed feeling about photos of the deceased. Back in 1970 when my mother died, a cousin took a discreet photo of her sometime before the service. She gave me a copy but I was only able to look at it many years later. I think my children will toss it when I am gone. Each of us reacts differently but whatever works for those left to grieve.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Loren Rhoads says:

      My parents sent me photos of my great aunt’s funeral when I couldn’t be there. I still have them, although I don’t like to look at them. Even though it’s a lovely casket (I helped pick it out), I’d rather remember her when she was healthy. Still, I can’t bring myself to delete the photos.

      Like

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