The Photo Shoot

Ann Hultberg

We arrived at the funeral home, ready for the photo shoot. Being the daughter of an immigrant, I was exposed to unfamiliar customs. Our father arranged us around the guest of honor, our beloved Hungarian Grandma a nagymama, dead at 69. It is a European tradition to take pictures of the body in the casket with the family alongside to send back to friends and relatives. Dad wasn’t snapping pictures of children opening gifts on Christmas morning, squealing with happiness, faces alight with excitement. He was taking pictures of us sad, frightened children who never before had seen a dead person.

Wearing her brown, stiff wig, so unlike her natural blond locks, Grandma donned an orange dress which popped with color against the silk white coffin lining. Her wax-like face looked like one of the many dolls she had bought for my sister and me. The casket was smeared in red roses, and a small, gold crucifix rested against the coffin lid.

Mom stood alone to the right of the coffin, left leg posed in front of the other, arms held close to her green dress, layered with a green and white checkered jacket. Her beehive hairdo lifted away any strands from her CoverGirl face foundation and light pink lipstick. She had on brown sandals, brown watch strap, brown glass frames, all matching.

Though we felt uncomfortable about this picture taking, we fulfilled our roles as part-Hungarian children. Sister Heidi—only 8 years old—wore a baby doll dress, white knee socks, and saddle shoes. She knelt at the prayer kneeler at the head of the casket, her curls pulled back with a hair clip that matched the blondness of her baby-fine hair. Heidi’s tiny face adjacent to grandma’s contrasted the sixty year span, the young to the old.

To the left of the casket, standing behind my brothers, I rested my clasped hands against my fingertip-length powder blue dress, trimmed in a white collar, with my neck slightly bent, eyes cast to the floor, remembering how I loved to polish her fingernails and visit their apartment on Christmas Eve, opening presents and always getting the Barbie I wanted that year.

Youngest brother Lyle, grinning, half his face swept over with long hair, showed off in a brown velvet bow tie and brown plaid bell bottom pants. Rail thin, his head barely reaching my shoulders, he stood in front of me. My brother Paul completed the triangle of grandchildren wearing his coveted blue suede shoes, blue plaid pants, and suit coat, a darker complement to my attire.

Grandpa edged along the group of us. His dark eyes stayed unfocused, as if remembering fifty years of marriage and the struggles of living in a communist country. They immigrated and became United States citizens, learned a different language, and established a new life in America with their son and family. His black suit mourned her illness and death.

Keep a solemn face—no smiling. These pictures of us grieving were being mailed to Hungary for the relatives to see—ones I had never met—Cousin John and friends Razur, Lily, and Katy.


Twenty years since grandma’s death, five years since he had left the United States for good, we received pictures from Hungary of nagyapa, grandpa, 91, in that same suit he wore at his first wife’s funeral, laid out in his casket draped with red roses.

Grandpa had remarried, and his new family members, many of whom we had never met, lined up next to the coffin, quite accustomed to having their pictures taken next to corpses, unlike their American counterparts.

His second wife Julia, 4 foot nothing, stooped, shrouded in black from veil to shoes like the Ghost of Christmas Future. She hung on to her son and his children—Niki, Beth, and Zouzoa, all with solemn faces, grieving, for us the American family to see. Pictures were taken at the cemetery—three strong men lowering the light oak casket engraved Hajdu Pal into the ground.


Exactly One year and a month later apa, Dad, would follow, and like his mother, dead at 69 years old.

We knew the routine, but never got used to pictures of us with dead bodies: Line up next to the coffin with solemn faces and look at the camera—the funeral director snapped the traditional pictures of the grieving family, ones to be sent back to family in Budapest.

Dad dressed in his blue work suit, Zippo pin on the lapel, face soft and calm, casket covered with red roses. He looked like he did when napping, his death so sudden and unexpected.

Slumped alone to the right of the casket, Mom wore a red polka dot dress which she later burned, her hair flat and sad. Black shoes, brown watch, white pearls—nothing matched. Xanax helped her to stand.

Heidi in a gray suit, black heels—only 28—knelt at the prayer kneeler at the head of the coffin, her Farrah Fawcett-like hair styled away from her pale face, her profile in juxtaposition with dad’s, a span of forty years.

I dressed in a knee length charcoal black one, hands clasped in front, neck bent. I remembered my dad saying how in Hungary grieving family members jumped into the grave on top of the casket and had to be pulled back out. I then understood why.

Lyle, still thin from the cancer, hair and eyebrows sparse, now taller than I, wore his lawyer suit, and next to him was Paul, in his newest Cole Haan shoes, black and wingtipped.

Pictures to tell of dad’s death were sent to Cousin John and friends Razur, Lily, and Katy.

Resting on my coffee table is a photo album filled with mementos of death—in addition to pictures of coffins and corpses, there are relics such as grandma’s loving grandmother ribbon from her casket spray, grandpa’s pall, and dad’s dried roses from the funeral home urn placed next to the prayer cards.

Doesn’t everyone have a collection like this?

Ann Hultberg of Western PA and Southwest FLA is a retired high school English teacher and currently an adjunct composition instructor at the local university. She writes nonfiction stories about her family, especially focusing on her father’s escape from Budapest, Hungary, to the United States. Her essays have been accepted by over a dozen magazines and journals including Persimmon Tree, Drunk Monkeys, Elixir Magazine, and Moonchild Magazine. You can follow Ann on Facebook at '60 and writing' and @hajdu on Twitter.

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