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Greetings from Death!: Postcards Depicting American Gravesites, Tombstones, & Memorials

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Death is an inevitable aspect of the human experience, yet it tends to be one of the most uncomfortable facets of civil discourse. Notably, the treatment of death and the cult of veneration surrounding it has been a demarcation of how civilizations set themselves apart from each other. Neanderthals were once thought to be distant evolutionary ancestors to homo sapiens—so much so, that when a neanderthal burial site was discovered in France in 1908, the authenticity of the practice of recognizing the act of death was so far removed from our concept of what neanderthals were capable of, it was immediately dismissed as coincidental (Than). It wasn't until almost a century later that, with a more comprehensive understanding of neanderthalic evolutionary ties to homo sapiens, the burial site was re-examined to confirm that it was indeed one of the earliest examples of honoring the dead (Than). The entombment of bodies was a common practice in ancient Babylonia and Mesopotamia, with each civilization creating more elaborate cults of death and the afterlife as they advanced. The lasting effects of the height of the Egyptian Kingdoms is marked today not by their societal and industrial advances but instead by the gravitas surrounding their rulers' gravesites. When Octavian's Rome swallowed Egypt, Rome gained a bustling trade port but also incorporated burial masques, death portraits, yearly graveside celebrations, and funeral rites from Egyptian customs. In brining about the death of Egypt, the Roman Empire found a way to memorialize it, too.

 

 

We have a fascination with death and the aurora surrounding it, but it also comes with a hushed reverence that distills itself into an uneasy appreciation of what death means and how we, as individuals, should view it. We know that it is both an inevitability and a taboo. Our own death, associated with the lasting effects of what we've accomplished with our lives, represents the ultimate and supreme conclusion and simultaneously the hopeful persistence of our works. The death of others also allows us an opportunity to grieve and honor both their entity and the natural conditions of human life. In this, the appreciations of the living, we see the attempts of memorializing the dead—either with honor or shame. In the postcards of this exhibit, the relics of the American dead are captured in order to be circulated among the living. Each of these postcards takes notice of a landmark erected to recognize a death, and each memorial differs from the others. Some of these are remarkable for how they shy away from the association of the body—a shrine or memorial—and others are remarkable for how they exhibit the body or call attention to the fragility of the corpse, but all of these postcards were created for circulation among the living. Their very nature sometimes seems at odds with their purpose of everyday communication between breathing, animated beings, but they are all an extension of what the original artifact they depict represents: a continued observance and lasting memory of those who are departed.

 

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