Atrio of open caskets propped on wooden-straight back chairs. The open lids of each white coffin reveal a square peephole framing the face and torso of three dead bodies. On top of the caskets, shiny placards read in ornate scroll: At Rest. Like all corpses laid out for funeral rites, the three boys exude a certain peacefulness due to the careful closing of their eyes and mouth, what morticians call “setting the features.” The dead brothers wear matching dark suits and black bow ties. Their dark hair is slicked back from their foreheads. Carnations rest on their chests, near clasped hands. Edgar Allan Poe in triplicate, I think, but I can’t tell if it’s the hair, the dark suits, or the morbid situation that brings this to mind. In the background, a ladder-shaped shadow that the wooden chairs make and the white curtains of the parlor take on the blur of an apparition. In the foreground of the photo, the bottoms of the caskets are cropped out. The coffins slant toward the viewer at a precarious angle, as if at the slightest stirring each casket could slip, topple to the ground, and spill its contents.
My father gave me the photograph. I was in from Ohio, visiting him in central Nebraska. I hadn’t seen him in over a year. He looked older than I remembered, the sagging skin around his eyes more pronounced, the hair around his temples whiter. Almost a decade after his divorce from my mother, he had started to rid his house of clutter and memorabilia—things he thinks he won’t need for the rest of his life—as he plans on moving to a retirement community.
“I’ve got something for you,” he said. He took me to the back bedroom and dug through the closet. “Here, you’re the family historian. You should have this.”
He handed me the framed photograph, lacquered with dust. Flecks of molded plaster decorating the frame crumbled when I touched it. I’d seen this photo before, heard the story: they were struck by lightning. But looking at it is still chilling. [End Page 92]
Click for larger view
View full resolution
I’m not sure why this photograph haunts me. Though they are my great-great-uncles, I can’t call them my “dearly departed.” They died nearly a hundred years ago, and anyone who would have known them is dead now too. I am certain this is the only extant photograph of these relatives. They have ceased to live on in any memory. What remains is a ten-by-twelve silver gelatin print.
After my dad gave me the picture, I put it facedown on the backseat of my car. The next day, I drove to Lincoln to visit my cousin, Erin. From there I would drive home to Ohio. When I arrived at Erin’s ranch-style suburban house, she was just as I remembered: petite, blonde, and wearing too much blue eye shadow. I hadn’t seen her in two years, not since my sister’s wedding, but growing up we had been as close as sisters. Erin’s mom, my aunt Dixie, died of breast cancer when Erin was six and I was seven. Our aunts made sure Dixie’s legacy lived on by mothering Erin as their own and telling her as many stories about Dixie as they could remember.
Five years ago, Erin gave birth to a premature baby who died. Though she is only nine months younger than me, Erin’s life has [End Page 93] been transformed by these tragic deaths in ways I cannot imagine. Members of Generation X who get married in their twenties will probably not experience the death of a close loved one for a period of at least twenty-five years, and even then, it will most likely be death in older age, notes Dr. Stanley B. Burns, a famous curator of postmortem photographs. I have gotten this far without a death in the immediate family. But it’s only a matter of time.
I brought Erin a bottle of Patrón. We sat...