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The Mortality Club

SAVING THE DEAD: Post Mortem Photographs

December 20, 1914
During one of our trips to Australia, my husband David found in an antique shop a poster sized photograph taken of the 740 Australian men who volunteered to fight during the First World War. These farmers, shopkeepers, and others who had never served in the military but shared a strong sense of patriotism were sent to Egypt for training. The day before they were due to depart for the front lines in Gallipoli, they had their picture taken on the Pyramid Cheops.

The photograph hangs in a small room off our den that we call the archive room because it houses all our family photo albums, and because one wall is devoted to photographs of my family. (The room also doubles as a wine storage room, and repository for history and reference books.)

I was in there the other day looking for a bottle of wine and got distracted by the photograph which David framed and hung on “his” wall –– the one we had dedicated to his family photos. My attention was drawn to the two soldiers who had been propped up against the wall of the pyramid by their buddies. They had died in the infirmary the day before. Because they were a part of the valiant 11th Battalion, they didn’t want them to be forgotten. It was to become the last visual record of eighty percent of them. Only 144 survived that bloody battle. Read More 
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SAVING THE DEAD: El Dîa de los Muertos

In Mexico there is a widespread belief that we die three times. The first happens when our hearts stop beating. The second occurs when our bodies are buried in the ground and we are no longer in sight. The third and final death happens when our loved ones have forgotten us.

The Mexicans try to make sure the final death never takes place. On November 1 and 2ndof each year, they celebrate the Day of the Dead. The celebration is joyful with an emphasis on honoring the lives of departed ancestors rather than on attempting to pacify malevolent spirits.

The tradition is an old one. All the ancient Indian civilizations of Mexico celebrated El Dîa de los Meurtos. Their celebrations were held in August, and continued throughout the month. In the fifteenth century, the Spanish Conquistadors converted the locals to Catholicism. As part of their attempt to get rid of what they regarded as pagan traditions, they moved the celebration of the dead to November 1 and 2nd, so that it would coincide with the Catholic All Saints and All Souls days.

The change in date hasn’t muted the passion of the festival, nor lessened the time, energy and resources devoted to its preparation. The planning process occurs throughout the year. The fall is devoted to gathering the foods and goods that will be offered to the dead. At the end of October, families gather to clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones with wreaths of marigold and other offerings. Adults are given bottles of tequila, mexcal or atole. Toys are left at the graves of the “little angels,” the dead children. Sugar skulls often inscribed with the names of the deceased on the forehead are prepared, and eaten by a friend or relative in a passionate and joyous ritual designed to commenorate and remember their dead loved ones.  Read More 
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