Greenbrier Ghost and Postmortem Photography

I may earn money from the participating companies linked in this post: (supporting my nearby independent bookstore Bluebird & Co, in Crozet, VA) and/or Audible. My podcast is sponsored by Audible and Care/Of.

As I commented on the episode 147 entry, I think that, in that photograph of Zona Heaster Shue, dear Zona is deceased:

The more I look at that picture of Zona, the more I think it might be a post-mortem photograph. The dull look on her face, her half-closed eyes…plus, she is wearing what her husband placed on her: a high-neck tied with a scarf/ribbon…It’s not out of the question for that era, y’all, for this to be a memento mori image.


I can’t stop thinking about this, because I am morbid and eccentric. You know this. How else would I even know postmortem photography was a thing?

Dead People Posing: The Mystery Behind Dead People Photographs * Alexander Coil

Photography and Death * Audrey Linkman

Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem and Mourning Photography From the Thanatos Archive * Jack Mord

And, my favorite book about how we treat our dead, and approach death in general: The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End * Harold Schechter

I have several postmortem photographs in my family of past generations–many family members solemnly gathered around my great-great grandmother’s or great-grand uncle’s coffin. None with corpse posed; all coffins at wakes. Good Scotch and Irish wake photos, showing who died and who paid their respects.

I do have one premortem photo, though, with its own Dollopy story attached:

My great-grandfather Porter was, as we say in the South, a hoot. (See, some stereotypes are real, and Southerners do often have their babies young. Do that several generations in a row, and I get to spend 26-27 years of my life with my great-grandparents.)

types of Brady stands, used to help photographic subjects stand still for the length of time required
types of Brady stands, used to help photographic subjects stand still for the length of time required

Well, when Grandpa Porter was ten years old or so, he became extremely ill. My great-great grandfather (Joseph Benson Porter) and grandmother (Eliza Ann Barrett Porter) did not have the money for the luxury of family photography, certainly not with eleven children. However, the doctor told them that young Cornelius did not have long to live. So they dressed Grandpa up, delirious with fever, in his short pants and Sunday hat, and took him into town for his one and only portrait, to remember him by. Grandpa was so woozy from illness that the photographer had to use a Brady stand to help Grandpa stay upright.

Grandpa always liked to pause here for dramatic effect, and prolong the story by giving me peppermint or bubble gum from his pocket. He was a man who savored his storytelling. A true showman. A podcaster before his time, if you will.

That doctor said I wouldn’t live two more weeks. Imagine that. Sometimes I go to that doctor’s grave and stand there and look at his headstone and think about that.

The newspaper incorrectly identifies my great-great grandmother Eliza as "Florence".
The newspaper incorrectly identifies my great-great grandmother Eliza as “Florence”.


Cornelius Porter. That’s my gene pool, folks. Explains a lot, doesn’t it.

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