Death Becomes Them

By Kelley, Raina | Newsweek, June 21, 2010 | Go to article overview

Death Becomes Them


Kelley, Raina, Newsweek


Byline: Raina Kelley

I swear, if anyone ever releases a photo of me taken after I'm dead, he should be prepared for a lifetime of paranormal activity--the Poltergeist kind. That said, I must admit I've looked at pictures of dead people myself. (Skip the moral outrage; hypocrisy noted.) I'm just saying that if the alleged pictures of a dying Gary Coleman are published (and if they exist, they will be), it'll just be another addition to the mausoleum's worth of celebrity corpses already on permanent display on the Web. CelebrityMorgue.com is one of the fanciest, with photos of the deceased Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, and Elvis Presley--not to mention a disturbing number of dead historical figures. But there are plenty of lesser sites out there, too. I was too squeamish to look--honest I was!--but when I Googled "pictures of dead people," I got 200 million results. "Pictures of naked people" got only 20 million.

Maybe that's not scientific, but you see my point: we have a love-hate relationship with death. Any time a photo, such as the one of a dying Michael Jackson, makes the rounds, or when autopsy photos of Marilyn Monroe and JFK are stolen, or when police photos from the Ted Bundy files show up on eBay, or every time somebody tries to steal Elvis, the lecture is always the same: Stop gravedigging. Let the dead lie in peace. In Coleman's case, we'll hear, "Why didn't we care this much about this D-list star when he was alive?"

The imagery of death is kept hidden now, but it wasn't always so. After the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, 19th-century families regularly took photos of their dearly departed as remembrances. We'd call that macabre, but death was a more integrated part of life then. Newspapers regularly published pictures of dead bad guys like John Dillinger. At the viewing of the bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, people ripped off pieces of their clothes and cut their hair for keepsakes. …

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