James VanDerZee, Memorial to Rachel VanDerZee, 1927

Several things intrigue me about this montage by James VanDerZee. It is a memorial to his daughter, who died at age 19 from peritonitis. He has composited her image in the window, alongside a religious scene. Unlike most of his mortuary portraits, he has not opened her casket.

And the photograph includes a text—most of “Crossing the Bar” by Tennyson. But the second stanza is missing; I am not sure if he excised it or it is a feature of the edition he ripped the page from.

Regardless of editorial insight or lack of it, it seems to me that post-mortem photography is involves both past and future remembrance. It is hard to get my head around the idea that we paradoxically remember the future—remember what has yet to happen. Anticipate a need for some artifact to place the past in perspective—not the perspective of now, but the perspective of the future.

History is not limited to an attempt at controlling the present, but also embraces anticipation of a future we would want to remember.