The Double Casket of Thomas & Mary Souder

PM15I remember rummaging through an old trunk in my grandmother’s house when I was a child and coming across what seemed to me at the time a very unusual photograph. It was a monochromatic image of a beautiful, young woman lying in a white casket (not dissimilar to the photo on the left).

Curious, I plucked the photo from the trunk and went to find my grandma, who was parked at the kitchen table sorting through the piles of mail that inevitably found its way into her house everyday. She told me that the woman in the casket was a distant relative of mine named Lena, who had died tragically at the age of 17. “You know, people used to take photos of the dead back then,” she said, taking the picture from me and studying it closely as if she had never seen it before. “Imagine that,” she remarked before placing the photo on the kitchen table and turning her attention back to the endless heaps of mail sitting on the table.

To a child, the image was haunting, and I never quite forgot it. It wasn’t till later in life, however, that I understood the historical significance behind the photo.

My grandmother was right (something she relishes hearing even to this day). Postmortem photos began to emerge shortly after commercial photography itself became available in 1839, and carried on being popular into the early 20th century. This was a time when people in Western Europe and North America had an intimate relationship with the dead, so it was inevitable that the recently deceased would feature prominently in Victorian family albums. The fact that my grandma only has one postmortem photo in her possession is now more unusual to me than the image itself.

Postmortem photos from the Victorian period varied considerably in presentation. The dead were not always photographed in their caskets, as you might expect. Often, they were propped up in chairs, occasionally alongside the living. This was especially common when the deceased was a child, as in this example above.

Sometimes, the dead’s cheeks were coloured to mask the telltale signs of decomposition, or the eyes drawn over to look as if they were open. R. B. Whittaker in New York described the latter services as “Fast Asleep and Wide Awake” in an advertisement card from 1860.

Other times, the corpse did not appear in the photo at all. Rather, it showed the gravesite with mourners standing around a tombstone. Yet no matter how different each photo was from another, death was always at the heart of these images.

By far one of the most unusual postmortem photos I’ve come across is that of Thomas & Mary Souder (below), taken at the time of their deaths in July, 1921. The couple died within 48 hours of each other from “the flux,” known today as dysentery—an intestinal inflammation that causes severe diarrhea that leads to rapid loss of fluids, dehydration and eventually death.

There are two forms of dysentery. One is caused by a bacterium, the other, an amoeba. The former is the most common in Western Europe and the United States; and is typically spread through contaminated food and water. Many people succumbed to the flux in the 19th and early 20th centuries, especially during wartime when access to clean water was severely restricted.

Thomas and Mary were in their late 70s and early 80s when they contracted the disease, and so their untimely demise is not shocking, especially when we consider this occurred before the discovery of penicillin (1928). What is surprising, though, is the double casket in which they were buried. For me, it raises many questions: was the casket commissioned while the two were dying or after both had passed away? And if the latter, how long had the Souders been dead before this photo was taken?

The Fort Worth Star Telegram in Hurst, Texas reported the deaths of the Souders on 16 July 1921:

Even death failed to separate Jefferson Souder…and Mrs. Mary E. Souder…his wife for more than half a century. Side by side, they will be laid to rest in the same casket in the little cemetery at Hurst Sunday afternoon after the span of more than an average lifetime, during with they were never separated. Only a few days intervened between their deaths. Mrs. Souder passed away at the old home near Hurst Wednesday. Her husband’s death followed Friday afternoon.

PM11The simple stone that marks their graves in Arwine Cemetery today gives no hint at the extraordinary casket that lies beneath the ground.

Sadly, this is not the only time two people have been buried together. In 2008, Ben and Arron Peak, two brothers who died tragically in a drunk driving accident, were buried in a double casket painted with the colours and logo of Manchester United, the boys’ favourite football team. Wilfred and Ann Fallows—husband and wife—were also buried this way after they died in a head-on collision in 2012. Most recently, Kelsey and Kendall Adams—two young children who were brutally murdered in New Orleans last year—were laid side-by-side and buried together.

So, as intrigued as I was by the Souders’ postmortem photo, I, for one, am glad that the double casket does not appear more frequently in my research. For when it does, it almost always involves a tragic tale filled with sorrow and unthinkable grief.


104 comments on “The Double Casket of Thomas & Mary Souder

  1. Carol says:

    Looks like Mr Souder’s legs are missing from the knees down.

  2. Norman Scott Turnage Sr. says:

    The Arwine Cemetery

  3. theresa fisher says:

    Photographs were something of a luxury and photographers were not always readily available in rural areas. That, combined with a high infant and child mortality rate, often meant that that postmortem picture was the only picture a family had of a child.

  4. […] The Double Casket of Thomas & Mary Souder « The Chirurgeon’s Apprentice […]

  5. No so Merry says:

    Ahh~ but Lindsey; your last line rings partial: ” it almost always involves a tragic tale filled with sorrow and unthinkable grief.”
    For me- it speaks of incredible LOVE… I too, have taken pics of my loved ones in their final beds. When my family threw a childish, selfish FIT when I wanted a photo of my mother… I gave in to THEIR desires to never have to think of her again. They don’t mention her to this day, and when I do- for i find her memory beautiful- they actually get MAD. I will never forgive myself for denying myself a reminder of the last glimpse i ever had at my beautiful mother. They didn’t like me taking a pic of my father in his casket, either- but I had realized by then that their selfish nature would allow them to forget it entirely. Sometimes I wonder if my predisposition to record their last moment above the ground is a way to appreciate my own, which will forever be un-noticed and quickly forgotten. The very memory, disposed. I for one, would NOT allow that to happen to the people I LOVED.

  6. Muskegger says:

    Several years ago I went to Zanzibar and met a sad woman who showed me a whole album of her husband – all taken after he was dead and lying in a casket. It was a bit surprising to me, but she treasured the pictures.

  7. Dr. Dee says:

    I now understand why my mom has various pictures of the deceased in our family. .. All in caskets…

  8. Armando says:

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  9. Nice article, I reposted it.

  10. Reblogged this on Featured E-Magazine and commented:
    Interesting post:

  11. meredithea says:

    The Souder family were one of the founding families in Hurst, TX. They were quite well-to-do, and so could afford the double casket. (In fact, Hurst had Souders as mayors all through my mom’s childhood and most if mine!)

  12. Two reasons for post mortem photography have been mentioned. Cost and difficulty in having to sit still for the photos.
    Earlier post mortem tend to be obviously dead, then came the weird phase of posing corpse to appear living. Some of these are so realistic, it’s hard to tell if they are post mortem or not.
    Then we moved on to casket photos. Some caskets were designed with drop sides to make the photos easier to take.
    In an era when ‘snapshots’ didn’t exist and child mortality was sky high, they are understandable. Still, some of them, like an obviously dead mother with a living child on her knee or the corpse of a baby made up to look like an angel, are weird.
    A lot of folks collect post mortem and there are specialities within the field.

  13. Nea says:

    It looks like a common practice even today. A lot of photographers are engaged in funeral photography or photographing still born babies. As morbid as it sounds, some families are openly inviting this concept. It is their way of dealing with the loss.
    Beautiful post. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Like a couple others who have posted in here, I too have worked in the funeral industry for many years and I have grown very appalled at the “fear” exhibited by Western beliefs in handling the dead. Honestly, it’s Hollywood that dictates that fear. We feel that as soon as Aunt Edna takes her last breath she becomes an immediate victim of gross decomposition.. better call the funeral home, quick! Ewwww…
    If only people knew how invasive embalming is, or the great lengths embalmers use to restore a deceased for proper casket display (using anything and everything laying around). But we don’t want to know these things.
    I saw families even in this day and age taking casket photos of their deceased loved ones at wakes and private viewings. There have even been situations where special permits from the state have allowed for couples or mother/baby being cremated at the same time.
    People really should take a more active and informed role about what happens to their loved ones after their death.

    • don’t know what you use to do to embalm but I never grab anything and everything laying around to restore a deceased. I use embalming chemicals and things provided by the chemical and casket companies. And depending on the death some deceased start severely decomposing within hours. Embalming doesn’t have to be that invasive with many times 1 incision being all that is necessary.

  15. minnealaskan says:

    Very interesting, provokes so many thoughts and curiosity.

  16. misfit120 says:

    A very interesting read. When I (Misfit’s other 1/2) lived in Norfolk, Va. my landady was showing me her old Italian family pictures & all of sudden there was a man “laid” out”…turned out it was her father in Italy in the late 40’s. Never have gotten that image out of my head.

  17. lilhousewifey says:

    A very interesting read. Thankyou

  18. Not just informative, but sadly intriguing. Great writing, thanks!

  19. Its weird when you see these photos and you think the person is asleep and then realise they are dead… changes the whole perspective – found some of these photos on Flickr…. Interesting read thanks!

  20. This is a great article. Homes use to have “death rooms” as well, which we now call living rooms. Creepy good stuff. Stay Cheesy!

  21. dcxdan says:

    An interesting tour of past photographic practices. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Wow, I am amazed! VERY interesting piece And very well written.

  23. […] A look at the history behind 19th century and early 20th century ‘casket photos’: The Double Casket of Thomas & Mary Souder via Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris’ blog The Surgeon’s […]

  24. Reblogged this on inspirewithinyou and commented:
    This is very fascinating and hits a few good points. I really like this

  25. sheiladerosa says:

    A very interesting post. Thank you.

  26. grace29 says:

    For many years as a youth my relatives thought nothing of photographing our deceased relatives but for some reason I found it mortifying. In my mind and heart I found it cruel, I would rather remember my fallen relatives as they lived. In my adulthood I still feel the same. I just find it eerily creepy and morbid. Let’s face it, it’s death, it is what it is. I would rather bug my family and friends snapping photos of them while they are still with me rather than after. It’s just me.

  27. jessickaa says:

    Really interesting .. thank you for taking time to write this 🙂

  28. It is interesting what was the norm one hundred years ago would be unthinkable today. This is a morbid subject matter, yet I read every word. I am glad I didn’t read this before bed. Thanks, ….I think.

  29. Interesting to be buried in the same casket. Cute for them.

  30. Me to hubby after being moved by this post: If we die in a horrible accident, do you want to be buried in a double casket?
    Hubby: H*** no
    Well alright then… 😛

  31. I was just thinking today about old black and white photos. Regardless of the subject matter, all of them seem to evoke interesting emotions.

    There is a book on my list called “Miss Peregrins Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs. You may find it interesting.

  32. Hey what’s good ? You have a good blog !
    Crazy Thomas !!

    Location de benne 67 :

  33. Great article! I had no idea “double caskets” existed…I have seen double containers for ashes though and have heard about two people being buried in the same casket (parent and child. I love the photos!

  34. Tom S. says:

    I just remembered that I have photographs of my grandfather’s tombstone an gravesite taken at the time of his burial in 1940, Cleveland, Ohio.

    Question: any information on two persons’ cremains being place in one large urn/container, for the couple to be together for all eternity?

    • Queenvoney says:

      Speaking of two persons’ cremains, that is what will happen with Ruby Dee, who passed away yesterday, remains and her late husband Ossie Davis who passed away about 10 years ago. Now she will be cremated and placed in the urn with him.

      “”Whoever goes first will wait for the other,” they wrote. “When we are united at last, we want the family to say goodbye and seal the urn forever. Then on the side, in letters not too bold but not too modest either, we want the following inscription: ‘Ruby and Ossie — In This Thing Together.’ “”

      Here is the a link to story in the LA times.

  35. Morguie says:

    An earlier comment mentioned a book, “At The Hour Of Our Death,” which is a thoroughly compiled history of the evolution of society’s treatment of the concept and handling of death. A very good source for understanding customs and an insightful study on mankind’s reluctance to accept the ultimate defeat of his own demise and mortality.
    In our present-day world of rules, laws, and strict regulation (here in USA) such a double-casket accommodation is illegal, generally. Also, cremating commingled remains violates the law, carrying severe penalties and sanctions, including imprisonment.

    Aside from photographs, there were other memento mori, memorial keepsakes. which were common in the Victorian era and beyond, such as hair wreaths and mourning cloth; there was a protocol for mourning, as well.
    As a funeral director and embalmer, I find the history of American funeral customs to be quite fascinating.

    • deskrobot says:

      I’d be interested to know whether commingling ashes created through separate cremations years apart is illegal–particularly in New York State. Is that a question a local funeral director might answer?

      • Morguie says:

        It is not illegal.

      • Morguie says:

        **As long as the person with the right to control the disposition (whomever the cremated remains are held by) has them in their possession they may do whatever they wish in regard to commingling the remains. You may need to check with the state’s funeral board authority if you plan to transfer the right to control to another person, or if you are thinking of eventually placing them in a permanent location, such as a cemetery — that should be done NOW, if that’s what you are planning, BEFORE you commingle. ALSO: please do not scatter the ashes on public property, beaches, or clandestinely on amusement park properties, most especially on rides.

  36. vhowell03 says:

    I agree with those who have commented on how well this is written. Good job.

  37. elainecanham says:

    In the picture of the woman holding the baby, I thought it was the woman that had died. I have a picture of my great grandfather standing by his wife’s grave, gesturing to the stone to show that this was where he was going to be buried. My mother hates it, she thinks it’s far too creepy.

  38. julieallyn says:

    One of the most interesting and well-written articles I’ve read in some time. The practice of photographing the dead reminds me of the 2001 Nicole Kidman film The Others.

    A co-worker lost a baby during childbirth and she put a photograph of herself holding the child in her scrapbook which at the time I thought seemed a little unusual. Not being judgmental — just that I’d not ever seen anything like that before.

    Kudos on a uniquely interesting piece.

  39. ladytatianna says:

    We have a similar picture of a deceased baby in our family album….it looks like the baby is asleep……It took me a while to figure the story out…..great post.

  40. josehkhim says:

    Reblogged this on josehkhim's Blog and commented:
    Double casket….!!!

  41. Amazing. How many men did it take to carry the coffin, I wonder?

  42. Fascinating! The child with painted eyes was so creepy. I am wondering if parents found it easier to see their deceased children with open eyes, or sat on their knee?

  43. alphawoman says:

    I believe one of the most famous and most sought after is the photo taken of Jesse James who was displayed in his coffin after he was shot in the back. Fascinating subject matter.

  44. Jenny says:

    Wow, what an excellently spooky, sad post. Congratulations on being pressed!

  45. franhunne4u says:

    Why can’t we today in Western societies accept all aspects of life even the sad ones? Why do we feel those photos to be creepy? (Well, maybe apart from those pictures where the deads are made up to appear less so.)
    Are we so afraid of negative feelings?
    I loved your post – it awoke in me the urge to speak out for more public acceptance of death being a daily occurrence.

    • Have you read “The Hour of Our Death” by Philippe Ariès?

    • Morguie says:

      I agree. When I was a small child it wasn’t understood by myself. Maturity changes everything when you realize the value of this memorialization. I am regretful that I never thought to preserve an audio keepsake of my father’s voice before he died. It’s a beautiful form of preserving a piece of them for family generations to come.

  46. 'Dictasays says:

    Reblogged this on 'DICTA SAYS…. and commented:
    This is both a beautiful and disturbing read. Clearly, I’ve known things I haven’t and it’s not located on the evening paper. Thanks ‘The Chirurgeon's Apprentice’ for this lovely piece.

  47. Modern Western society’s fear/distant reverence of the dead never fails to surprise me. My family is Indian, and we have pictures of our recent dead and videos of their funerals, mostly so that those of us who are in the States can see our dead kin one more time. The first picture you shared reminded me of a funeral picture of one of my mom’s cousins who died young. The posed pictures are definitely eerie, but I love the 19th century’s connection with the dead. Great job on writing such an interesting piece!

  48. Mythoughts76 says:

    Thanks for the photos. The name Souder runs in my husband’s family.

  49. lruthnum says:

    Wow this is such a fascinating post. Great pictures – it’s interesting to see how different cultures deal with death. The double casket it so haunting but beautiful at the same time.

  50. Barbara Rath says:

    This is an interesting research article based on such a personal discovery. Thank you for the work you did to pull it together and for sharing it with us. I have boxes full of black and white photos to go through; I’m going to remember this article and be more aware of what I might be seeing. Thank you.

  51. amriechia says:

    Reblogged this on Child Of Woe and commented:
    Interesting read about memento mori.

  52. Therese Lu says:

    This was very informative. Thank you for posting this.

  53. sally92013 says:

    Reblogged this on More Aah than F*** and commented:
    Re-blogged this on More Aah Than F*** – I just read about a double cremation this week in uk. A first for the crematorium! Fantasic post – thank you.

  54. Lucy Locket says:

    Fascinating, thanks for sharing it.

  55. That’s fascinating and a bit creepy all at the same time. Great post! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  56. herschelian says:

    Maybe undertakers kept a few double coffins in stock for just such a situation. The whole attitude to death and mourning has changed completely in the past 100 years. I have an excellent book (which you may know/have) ‘Necropolis; London and Its Dead’ by Catherine Arnold from which I learned of the huge industry that surrounded death and mourning.
    I live in Beijing now, so you’ve inspired me to find out about the Chinese way of death.

  57. Jwolfe says:

    I also stumbled onto postmortem photography at my Grandmother and Grandfather’s house. My grandfather was a WWII Veteran and worked cleanup at a concentration camp in Germany. I found a bunch of photos of bodies stacked on top of one another and lost it. Since then I have always found postmortem photography interesting (10 year old me is freaking out right now). This is a great post! Thank you for sharing this!

  58. Jwolfe says:

    Reblogged this on Words With Cats and commented:
    This blew me away!

  59. Ted Luoma says:

    I think the creepiest part of your article is when people painted dead people’s eyelids. That picture of that child “staring” is creepy.

  60. . 🙂 thank you for such an interesting read

  61. Sara Niles says:

    Reblogged this on IMPACT Books & Art and commented:
    Unusual cultural habit

  62. glenn2point0 says:

    I saw a documentary a while ago where this process of photographing the dead in life like poses was discussed.

  63. Stephen says:

    A beautifully written post, and very interesting. Thank you for sharing

  64. I found this to be so disturbing and creepy but I couldn’t click away.

  65. mydeadlives says:

    Love this photo

  66. recentcoinz says:

    For quite some time, many people were ONLY photographed after death. Photography was difficult, expensive, and quite a large pain in the rear. Just imagine trying to sit perfectly motionless for half an hour so that the photographer could get a proper exposure. A blink, a twitch, a sneeze and you have to start all over again. Photographers actually used iron stands to position people and keep them still so that they could capture the image. The earliest photos cost about a weeks wages for a single small image.

  67. awax1217 says:

    They also used death masks. We are a strange lot when death is mentioned and tossed about.

  68. What an interesting article. I have never seen this earlier.

  69. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  70. There are so many pictures like this on pinterest too. It’s quite especially interesting

  71. Ben says:

    A bit creepy, but interesting none the less.

  72. Fighting BED says:

    It’s nit something I have seen before but it is interesting and yet so tragic as you say, for a double tragedy. A glimpse into the past. Thank you for sharing.

  73. A very interesting article! In my family photos collection there are photos of only one deceased relative, but they were taken not long ago – in the 1970’s, I think.

  74. Charlene Nicoletto says:

    Hi there,

    I love your FB posts, and your email updates! I hope you get this messages, sometimes subscription addresses aren’t monitored.

    Here is something in local news, but is from Texas, but it is terribly sad.

    Reason for a double-casket? I’d say so.

    Keep doing what you do!


    Date: Wed, 4 Jun 2014 15:15:05 +0000 To:

  75. John Holton says:

    Our parish back in Chicago was founded by people who had come to the US from Lithuania in the early part of the last century. When someone died, it was customary to have a picture taken that showed the deceased in the casket, the family and friends, and the priest who said the funeral posed in front of the church. The family would then have the picture printed on postcards to send to their relatives in the Old Country. It was an inexpensive way to let the relatives know that Uncle Vytus had passed. Sounds morbid, but in those days, it’s what they did.

  76. aylaeh says:

    What a haunting photo of that mother and child… The mother looks so sad and distressed.

  77. Sam I Am says:

    I believe the Siamese twins were buried together, as well.

  78. Interesting and touching. I’m curious, though, in the Souder picture… he looks recently deceased, while she looks almost skeletal. Why would that be if they died within days of each other?

  79. I have a large collection of 19th and early 20th Century mourning item and images. You may enjoy them, and

  80. Fiz says:

    That is a beautiful piece of writing, Lindsey. Thank you for posting it.

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