Considering the Dead

By Steve Brodner   Friday October 31, 2014

The pre-Columbian Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrated the lives of the departed with food- and flower-based celebrations that were so popular that the observance spread beyond Mexico to South America, then to Europe and beyond. 

The holiday also promotes artistic expression in a nice D.I.Y. mould, with elaborate preparations including the building of alters, the sculpting of goddess-like avatars, and even the shaping loaves of bread into special forms designed to lure the deceased back from the hereafter to join the celebration.

In the U.S., mortality has become almost an abstraction, and partying in the face of death still maintains a time-honored taboo on levity, nowhere better explored than on the seminal HBO production, Six Feet Under.

So it's no wonder we go all out for Halloween! It’s the perfect antidote for what most of us wish to avoid: facing the grim reality that the Reaper has every one of our names somewhere on his list. So if you’ve been spending too much time on BuzzFeed and want to get down to some really fine dead stuff, following is a selection of images proving that more than a few aspects of death can provide first-class art, and sometimes, a great spectacle. Enjoy, put on your best, and have a nice howl tonight! Credits follow.

Photo credits, top to bottom:

© David Butow, from the Honoring Madiba series, December 2013. (This photograph is featured on the cover of AP30.)

Photographer unknown. The funeral of John F. Kennedy, November 25, 1963, Associated Press.

Gallery view, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Information.

William N. Jennings, Morgue with Poem, United States, ca. 1920. Dark Days, Mystery, Murder Mayhem, Aperture 149, courtesy The Harvard Art Museums.

Photographer unknown, postmortem portrait, 19th century.

© Adam Voorhes, from Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital, courtesy powerHouse Books.

Unidentified photographer. The Black Ascot, 1910, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, The Metropolitan Museum of Art Getty Images/Metropolitan Museum of Art.