At 18 I lost my parents and I am now finishing my PhD studying how the dead are portrayed in photographs, and I have a blog dedicated to death and culture. I will avoid asking questions that give too much personal detail, but otherwise, ask about my research, my loss, my experience, or general advice about losing someone.

Comments: 163 • Responses: 51  • Date: 

focodad50 karma

My daughter will never know my mother since mom passed before my little girl was born. Any advice on how to keep her memory alive and give my daughter 'memories' of her, without actually knowing her?

usqueadmortem72 karma

This is such a personal thing, but you can look through photo albums together, and tell her stories. Sometimes even bedtime stories of memories can be nice. I do this, and I also use my mother's cookbook a lot, and cook from it to help keep her as a big part of my life. If there was something you used to do with her, or something she loved, it can be a great way to keep her memories as a tradition for your daughter. You can even go through old things together, it can be like exploring for your daughter so she can feel more involved. I hope this helps, and am thinking about you.

Nanteitandaro4 karma

Who do you think you would be today if this horrible tragedy had never occurred? Did it change you in any fundamental way?

usqueadmortem6 karma

It changed absolutely every aspect of my life, from my relationship with my extended family, to my career choice, degree and even where I live. You can never say where you would be if it hadn't happened, but I know I would not be where I am or doing what I do.

focodad41 karma

Have you forgiven your brother?

usqueadmortem81 karma

I have not.

SmallFemale37 karma

Do you know why he did it? Was he convicted?

Sorry for your loss

usqueadmortem59 karma

I've asked, but I do not know. He was convicted.

MjrMjr10 karma

You asked. Did he answer?

usqueadmortem11 karma

No. He refused to speak to me

luikiedook10 karma

Would you like to forgive him some day ? Not that you can just choose to. But do you think you would be better off if you could forgive him?

usqueadmortem3 karma

I do not know what to expect in the future, but for now I do not think forgiveness would make a change in what happened or how it changed my life.

SilentlyCrying24 karma

How did you deal with losing your family all at once? Did your bother ever show “signs” of being capable of this action or extreme violence?

usqueadmortem28 karma

It was really hard losing my family at once, and very unexpected. I had a lot of support from my extended family, my friends, and my university. I also went to counselling for a long time, which I found really helpful. To be honest, though, I still have moments where it is hard to think about how I don't have my family. I tried very hard to focus on a day at a time and that got me through the first few years.

SilentlyCrying8 karma

Were you able to forgive your brother?

usqueadmortem12 karma

I have not.

SilentlyCrying6 karma

Do you think you’ll ever be able to?

usqueadmortem16 karma

I don't know.

SilentlyCrying6 karma

How old was your brother when this happened

usqueadmortem14 karma

I would prefer not to be too specific to personal information, but we are not far apart in age

SilentlyCrying5 karma

Has this affected your religious stand point

usqueadmortem16 karma

Actually, I am not particularly religious but I am more spiritual now.

gameoftomes2 karma


usqueadmortem2 karma

I am very lucky to have very supportive friends who are just like family to me. It is amazing how loving and supportive friendships can be.

Peasinaspacepod19 karma

what change have you noticed in people's portrayal of death before and after they lose someone? Or experience near death themselves?

usqueadmortem22 karma

I can't speak as much to near death experiences, but in my research I have found that after losing someone, it becomes much more important to portray death as a social issue. Like The work of artist Nan Goldin, who focused on portraying her dead friends surrounded by their loved ones. Artists seem to focus more on making death something the living experience as well.

gorsamp4 karma

I looked her up and she's got some interesting stuff, but most of it seems sexual. How often are the themes of the beginning and end of life intertwined?

usqueadmortem14 karma

I recommend looking at her series "The Cookie Portfolio" which follows the life and death of her friend Cookie Mueller. This is a great example about how life and death are entwined. It is actually something more common in photography than other mediums.

Hosni__Mubarak13 karma

What is your favorite type of cheese? I personally like a crusty Gouda, but a stinky Brie will do in a pinch. What is your favorite type of table cracker?

usqueadmortem23 karma

I really like goats cheese, but I am not picky about my crackers

Hosni__Mubarak5 karma

What kind of goat? Irish brayer? Hucklebuck?

usqueadmortem2 karma

I tend to prefer Welsh goat's cheese - but I do like Gevrik

SleepingLesson8 karma

Are you familiar with Sufjan Stevens' new album Carrie & Lowell?

Its theme revolves around Sufjan's estranged mother's recent death, and the complicated relationship he had with her throughout his life. The album's art takes on an eery tone in light of the revelations of the music, too. It was a real eye-opener for me, experiencing someone's interpretation of death through art.

usqueadmortem5 karma

Thank you so much for the recommendation and for sharing it with this thread. From the album art I already find it quite moving.

iworknights5 karma

How do you view Mexico's portrayal of death compared to the rest of the world's?

usqueadmortem6 karma

Art Historically speaking, Mexico tends to focus a lot on the absence of the individual who has died, rather than on the pain of those in mourning. You see a great deal of work dealing with los desaparecidos leading to the use of bodily traces, and shadows in relation to death, and this has extended to the wider art practice. A lot of people have written about the humour or more light-hearted approach to death (often referencing the Dia del Muerte) but I think when you look at the works of people like Teresa Margolles, one realises that there is more to the relationship than most people realise.

elzombino5 karma

This may be too personal, but how did you find out this happened? Were you home at the time? What was your first reaction?

usqueadmortem12 karma

I won't go into too much detail, but I was contacted by the police. I am not sure if it was my first reaction, but I threw the phone.

disassterbate5 karma

Thank you for doing this AMA. You don't have to answer them all, obviously, but I have several questions for you.

First, do you mind sharing the link of your blog with us?

What is your favorite (or "go-to," or most impactful, or most notable, etc.) art/media portrayal or discussion of grief and loss? Is there a particular book/movie/artist you think well encapsulates death and/or the bereavement process?

Finally, do you have anything to say on the subject of anticipatory grief- the social or cultural impact of someone "dying" slowly and predictably versus unexpectedly, and how the treatment and expectations of those around them change?

usqueadmortem9 karma

My go to art portrayal of grief is Doris Salcedo's The Orphan's Tunic. It is two disjointed tables that are sewn together with threads of a dress a mother made her now orphaned daughter.

Monkey_Xenu4 karma

What form do contributions take in arts or more specifically photography PhDs? Is it difficult to find an area or subject which hasn't been analysed? Are there specific analytical models which you have to apply to your topic?

I'm a comp-sci PhD student and I'm really intrigued because for us it's quite clear cut.

usqueadmortem11 karma

I found choosing my PhD easy because there is very little research in post-mortem photographs. I think the key for most of us is to find areas that have gaps or need more research. It is, though, quite hard to find something like that, so there are less photography PhDs. As for analytical models, with art history there is very little guidance. I read a lot of people I liked and used their work as a guide, but methodologies tend to mix.

Monkey_Xenu4 karma

Thank you for responding. I work with quite a few people who are doing image processing PhDs and at one point I was heading along that path myself so it's interesting to hear about how it's handled from the creative side. Best of luck!

usqueadmortem3 karma

You as well!

Kra_gl_e2 karma

What exactly is a photography PhD? Is it an arts-oriented thing? Is there overlap with other fields? I'm curious, as I've never heard of it before.

usqueadmortem2 karma

My PhD is officially a History of Art PhD. It's not uncommon for art historians to specify the medium they study since there are so many options.

la8381 karma

The topic you have chosen fascinates me, whats some interesting things that you've found through your research that have surprised you?

usqueadmortem1 karma

I was very interested to find that the history of postmortem photography has a very large gap from the end of the first world war until the 1980s. I delve into this briefly in my introduction but would highly encourage another PhD to take on this gap and understand it - I would buy that book immediately!

la8381 karma

Oh is there some sort of revival of it since the 80s? That interesting, as I guess I always had this impression of it that it was only done in the in the distance past. Surely is still a very niche form of photography today?

usqueadmortem1 karma

It actually moved from being largely personal to being the subject of art photography, so very public. It is so fascinating!

Ent_angled1 karma

Joel Peter-Witkin, the wizard behind so many post-mortem cadaver collages. I'm assuming you're also looking into Momento-Mori's on top of post mortem photography?

usqueadmortem1 karma

My main artistic case studies are Nan Goldin, Joel-Peter Within and Andres Serrano, I am actually focusing on the ways of looking presented through the camera, so memento mori features, but isn't central to, my thesis

usqueadmortem5 karma

I would also love to hear more about your phd!

keatonpotat0es4 karma

I want to start doing post-Mortem photography for Now I Lay Me Down to sleep. I have a Canon Rebel XSI camera and I often worry that the equipment I use will not be "professional" enough to do these babies justice. I have no experience in post mitten photography thus far...any suggestions? Thank you for doing this!

usqueadmortem3 karma

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is a beautiful site, I am honoured to have you comment on my thread. A lot of parents on that site use Cannons or Fujifilm cameras, the biggest thing is to focus on getting across the way the family wants to be presented (or if it is your child how you want to present your relationship). There are some very traditional poses that are powerful - the mother holding the child in her arms and looking at him/her, with the father holding the mother and looking over her shoulder at his child. Many people mimic family photographs, because it shows that this was a family. Lighting is the other very important thing. I highly recommend soft, natural lighting, and that is solely based on the responses from parents who have certain photographs they prefer. Most importantly, if you are photographing a family you don't know, is to really talk to them about what they want strangers to see and understand. Good luck and I wish you all the best.

CapricornAngel3 karma

How would you portray someone that you have no idea of what they look like? My grandmother died at a very young age and my father never had any photographs of her, he has passed away too.

usqueadmortem3 karma

A lot of people use stories or memories and objects, like a watch or a dress. It is important to many people that the memory of the person does not need to be just how someone looked, but how they made people feel or the things they loved to do. I hope that helps?

bblasnalus2 karma

I see in your other responses you have not, but do you want to forgive your brother?

I can only imagine it is very difficult but the desire to do so may allow it eventually. Forgiving someone doesn't always or necessarily mean they are not still to be held responsible or must pay reparation of some kind. I am very sorry for your loss.

Follow-up: Are you an artist yourself of some kind; paint, photo, word...?

usqueadmortem3 karma

I am not an artist in that I do not sell any artwork, but I do practice pastel drawing and I take the occasional photography course to keep myself aware of how photographers can use the camera. I am an art historian, so I suppose you could say writing is my main outlet. As for wanting to forgive, that changes every now and then. At the moment it seems to mean very little because it would change nothing in my life if I did. Who knows what the future holds.

Blucove2 karma

Do you know why your parents, but not you? (Sorry if this sounds bit morbid.)

usqueadmortem5 karma

To be honest, I was a target not reached in time.

Blucove1 karma

Did he ever show any indication that he had any motive to commit such an act?

usqueadmortem1 karma

No he didn't. That took a long time to make peace with.

laura-and-brain2 karma

First off I am very sorry for your loss.

I have two questions. What should you say to someone who has lost someone close to them when trying to consolidate them? I feel like "im sorry" or "things get better" are so cliche. & as someone who's never lost anyone really close to me, how should I prep for my older family members dying in the next few years? What is it like to have someone that close to you die?

usqueadmortem2 karma

I know it sounds cliche when you are saying it, but I'm sorry, when its sincere, does mean a lot. Its tough to have a golden rule, because everyone deals with loss so differently. I really appreciate when someone asks me about what my parents were like when they were alive, because it helps me remember them and feel like they can still have a role in my life. But whatever you say, let t be genuine. It means so much to have someone there for you at all when you lose someone.
jayelwhitedear has good advice about preparing to lose someone you love, there is no preparing. I recommend letting some people know who you know you can talk to, whenever it strikes. That helped me the most, having someone to talk to even if it was a strange time. I was really in shock when it first happened, so I would be hit at the strangest moments with the pain or loneliness or just feeling unsure what to feel. I am really lucky for my friends and my uncle who were always willing to pick up the phone.

SheWantsTheDan2 karma

4 years later, still struggling to deal with the loss of my father. Do you ever feel guilty about not being able to stop the event from happening and if so how do you deal with it?

usqueadmortem3 karma

I did for a very long time, but I found time was the most helpful thing. It sounds cliche but the fact of the matter is, you find ways of making the loss part of your life and with that comes making your absence part of your life. If it helps at all, as a therapeutic exercise I once wrote a letter addressed to my parents (though obviously not to send to them) about how I felt. I never mailed it to anyone, but it helped

Slinkyfest20052 karma

I work in an industry that deals with many grieving people over the phone.

How would you recommend receiving the news of a spouse or relatives death dropped casually in conversation with little fanfare?

I have always imagined it was simply a matter of time for the shock and loss to catch up to this person, so dead pan are they, but I find it disconcerting none the less.

What I mean is, what would you say to someone who told you their relative had recently died without any emphasis, like commenting on the weather?

usqueadmortem3 karma

I know exactly what you mean. I used to do that a lot. It could mean they are in shock, they are trying to gauge your response, or it could be that they are trying to make it feel normal. If it is relevant, it means so much when someone asks a question about them. I was in shock when my parents first died and the biggest help was getting a question or a chance to talk about them, rather than someone saying they are sorry for your loss. It is lovely to care that someone is in pain, but as the person grieving, that essentially ends the conversation for us. We have made you sorry, and that isn't always a pleasant feeling. I recently met someone and we were chatting and when I asked how her family found her move, she said "Well my mother is dead, so my dad is taking my move a bit hard" and I asked her "Did your mom want you to stay close to home too?" She got this massive smile on her face. Grieving is so personal, that it is hard to have a rule of thumb, but I have found that asking questions helps people process and it also lets them remember the person, which can be a real struggle in the first year or two.

Slinkyfest20053 karma

I'll try to keep this perspective in mind next time I talk to someone. It makes sense, and could mean a lot to that individual. I just hope it doesn't backfire, but if so at least I will have a story to tell.

Thank you for your response!

usqueadmortem2 karma

Good luck and I think that your desire to be as helpful to them as possible is the most important thing.

jon011041 karma

Are you depressed? Have you found a way to be happy (again)?

usqueadmortem3 karma

I was depressed, for a very long time, but more time, a lot of support, and a lot of the desire to get better meant that today I have a happy life. I still miss them, and I still have days that are harder than others, but I have found a way to stand on my feet. To anyone struggling I would say tell someone, people want to help and be there for you, and it makes a huge difference.

throwawaynumber291021 karma

I'm sorry for your loss. How do you keep your parents' memory alive?

usqueadmortem1 karma

I talk about them a lot. I cook from my mother's recipes, and I have my father's sports memorabilia up on the wall. I look through albums and have family picture up around the house. I try to just keep them in my life as resent, without it being overwhelming.

rosstag1 karma

Of every attitude towards death in all cultures, which do you believe is the best at showing children that death and birth are one in the same, and that we can accept death as a beautiful part of life?

usqueadmortem1 karma

That is a very difficult question! I think it is tough to say anyone does it particularly well or not because it is so uncommon today to link life and death because of the role of medicine. Buddhist cultures tend to be more appreciative of the cyclical nature of life. And Hindu cultures as well. But still, the advent of vaccines and the extension of end of life care means life and death are very heavily separated in most cultures.

shibby0081 karma

First off I am so sorry for your loss. Nobody, no matter the age should have to go through that. That being said, how do you think your parents deaths have changed your views on life, or people in general?

usqueadmortem2 karma

I have a harder time trusting people, but that is more due to my brother than my parents. I am more spiritual. I also have a very good relationship with my in-laws which I make a lot of effort with. I think when I am a parent I will discover another set of changes; I want to be careful not to be over-protective.

orionjy981 karma

Not sure if your grandparents are still around or not (sorry if they aren't), but if not, how does losing your parents compare to losing your grandparents?

usqueadmortem2 karma

I don't know if anyone else has found this - and if you have or haven't I would love to hear from you - but for me, after losing my parents, every other loss felt like less of an impact. So in my case, it had more to do with order than my relationship. It sounds so strange, and maybe that won't always be true.

justforthis789341 karma

is it dangerous or unnecessarily painful to have spent a lot of your time and energy devoted to death? i don't want to sound patronizing, as that tone is difficult to eradicate in written word, but have you found your work to be too constant a reminder of death, either for your own parents, or in general?

usqueadmortem1 karma

While doing a PhD does take a lot of time, I have always been really strict about keeping it to "working hours" meaning I work on my PhD from 8am - 4pm and then I stop and remove myself form it. That isn't always possible, but it worked. This is actually great advice for any PhD. You can let it take over your life, but its best to keep your work out of your life, it keeps you from losing control.

mementomori40 karma


usqueadmortem1 karma

I am an art historian, focusing on photographic history, so a lot of my work is based in photographic theory and in viewer response to photographs. I draw on the work of Barthes, Bazin and Kristeva, but my approach is a mix of methodologies. I start very much with the image, what is actually there, what the photographer has chosen to do, his/her relationship with the subject, and even how they print the photograph. Then I focus on the physicality of the image, and how the viewer interacts with it. I hope that helps!

BigYearColorado0 karma

What would you say is the most difficult part about drawing the line between your personal experience and the academic, while still letting one inform the other?

usqueadmortem2 karma

With a PhD its very easy to distinguish the two because you rely so much on methodology and theory to be allowed to make any sort of assessment - in other words you have to back up everything you say. I think it still bleeds in a little, after all my topic of choice is based on my experience. But so much of what I do is based on theories - the work of Barthes, Kristeva, Sontag, Bazin, etc. - that it becomes easy to separate professional work from personal impression.

Convictions0 karma

Has focusing on death hindered you in moving forward past your parents death?

usqueadmortem2 karma

I haven't found that, the biggest obstacle for me was that my family initially avoided ever speaking about it. That was an incredible hindrance to healing.

RamboGoesMeow0 karma

Sorry for your loss.

Have you noticed if any specific colors, other than black, are featured more prominently in post-mortem art?

usqueadmortem3 karma

Because the Victorian Era is the era that most people think of when producing postmortem images, black and white photography is the most common for personal postmortem photography. However, if you are talking about artists who photograph in a morgue, red and pink are the most common.

bullshit-careers0 karma

Growing up did your brother seem off? Were you close?

usqueadmortem3 karma

I thought we were, but I was taken by surprise so perhaps we weren't.

Hardy1987-10 karma


usqueadmortem3 karma

I am proud to have honoured my parents' memory through education. My mother once told me the most important things she and my father could give me were morals and a good education. Remaining in academia is a reflection of that.

kator2wei-11 karma

I read in other replies that he was convicted. Does it eat you inside that you can't get revenge and make him suffer for what he did?

usqueadmortem2 karma

No, I think the justice system has done its job.

kator2wei1 karma

Court system, in a true justice system, no innocents would ever be declared guilty, but thanks for answering.

usqueadmortem1 karma

Your response fascinates me. Are you from the EU, Or from another country?

kator2wei1 karma

Canada - our system here is definitely a court system too

usqueadmortem1 karma

I am sorry I assumed you were American so used "justice system" because Law & Order refers to it as the "Criminal Justice System" I suppose the court is more appropriate for Brits as well