Ah, the Victorians. There are plenty of delightfully morbid stories surrounding them, and that’s probably why I find myself so intrigued. Many say that they were obsessed with death but it was more so that death was greater in those times. So, in today’s little dive into the 19th century let’s take a look at ‘post-mortem photography’.
During this time period a lot of folk were dying young and medicines weren’t as advanced as they are today, so a lot of death was down to infections and illnesses. Not to mention the epidemics that swept through the century; diphtheria, typhus, and cholera. But while the people were withering, technology was growing, thriving, and photography was fast advancing and so put the two together and, well, here we are.
Sunrays spilt through the drapes and washed over the slumbering loved one. So calm and finally at peace. That was what a relation hoped to have captured after the passing of someone they loved and cared for.
It was common for most post-mortem photos to be of babies, infants or children for they had not gone through a previous sitting, while alive, to have their photo taken. In fact, one of the reasons why most chose to do this was so they had at least one photo of their loved ones that they could hold and cherish.
However, do be mindful that some of these photos, now shared around the internet are, in fact, fake. And the person thought dead in the photo is actually still very much among the living . If they look alive, well, they probably were. One apparatus that may confuse folk into believing someone in the photo is dead is the ‘posing stand’. Some say it was used to ‘hold up’ the dead when positioned seated or standing. But the apparatus would not have been strong enough to hold the corpse of a fully grown, deceased man or woman. In fact, due to the slightly long exposure, posing stands were actually used to aid the living in remaining still while their photo was taken – be it by holding an arm in a certain position, or leg, or even a head, etc.
It’s also good to remember that back in the 19th century photography was not as advanced and the chemical process used could cause discoloration in photos (white eyes, dark limbs, etc.) And if one did move quite a bit during the exposure time then they would appear more blurred; hence the ‘spooky’ and ‘ghostly’ images shared. Now I am nor a skeptic or full believer but some of the photos can be rather convincing… But don’t let them fool you.
One little phrase you may have heard is: memento mori. It’s Latin and basically means ‘remember death’. It is inevitable and comes for all of us in the end. But the Victorians really clung to these two words and trinkets appeared in many different forms to commemorate the occasion. These photos were their way of keeping loved ones with them after they were gone. A physical memory.
Between 1839 and 1860 came the first commercially successful photographic process: the daguerreotype (named after the inventor, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre). The daguerreotype is an image on a silvered copper plate. And, as you can imagine, they were not cheap. Only the wealthy could afford them. But as time progressed eventually images were able to be printed on other forms, such as paper, and were available to more folk.
A lot of these photos are chilling and emotional to view. I often wonder what it would be like if modern society still had such photos taken. Perhaps, somewhere in the world, some folk still do. I have heard of some photographers about who capture moments of stillbirths or the death of young children. But, while this may be the case, death has become a very hushed topic, and folk don’t like to discuss it much or look death in the eye. It is more feared now than it has been in the past. But perhaps that’s because modern medicine and technology is working wonders and allowing us to live longer lives than our ancestors, who were often lucky to make it out of their teenage years.
I, for one, find these photos very beautiful. Eerie but beautiful. However, I don’t believe I would wish to have my beloved deceased relatives photographed. Turning to see a photo of their corpse, no matter how ‘done up’, atop my fireplace would send shivers down my spine. Having said that, if I had no other photos of my family to look back on… maybe I would consider it. Would you be all for a good post-mortem photograph of a loved one, perhaps even of yourself?