Friday, January 13, 2012

"I see dead people": Victorian post-mortem photography




There's a slightly macabre story about the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, a man so dissipated he expired from chronic alcoholism in his late 30s. (His last words purportedly were, "I've had eighteen straight whiskeys. I think that's the record.") Lionized in America, he found the seductions of the White Horse pub a little too much for him and keeled over with a brain hemorrhage. His widow Caitlin recalls that when his body was being shipped back to Wales for burial, some of the deckhands noticed his coffin and sat down around it to play a spirited game of poker.

"How Dylan would have loved that!" she exclaimed.

Indeed.

The coffin in the picture above doesn't contain Dylan Thomas.  More likely the photo depicts one of those Irish wakes where they like to prop up the body with a drink in its hand and carouse all night long.  It does not really qualify as post-mortem photography except in the broadest sense: the subject is someone who is being memorialized in a permanent and significant way.






Before we look at any more of these, let's quote the Great and Powerful Wikipedia:

Post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture or memento mori) is the practice of photographing the recently deceased.


The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 made portraiture much more commonplace, as many of those who were unable to afford the commission of a painted portrait could afford to sit for a photography session. This cheaper and quicker method also provided the middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones.


These photographs served less as a reminder of mortality than as a keepsake to remember the deceased. This was especially common with infants and young children; Victorian era childhood mortality rates were extremely high, and a post-mortem photograph might have been the only image of the child the family ever had. The later invention of the carte de visite, which allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative, meant that copies of the image could be mailed to relatives.




The practice eventually peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century and died out as "snapshot" photography became more commonplace, although a few examples of formal memorial portraits were still being produced well into the 20th century.


The earliest post-mortem photographs are usually close-ups of the face or shots of the full body and rarely include the coffin. The subject is usually depicted so as to seem in a deep sleep, or else arranged to appear more lifelike. Children were often shown in repose on a couch or in a crib, sometimes posed with a favorite toy or other plaything. It was not uncommon to photograph very young children with a family member, most frequently the mother. Adults were more commonly posed in chairs or even braced on specially-designed frames. Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types.





The effect of life was sometimes enhanced by either propping the subject's eyes open or painting pupils onto the photographic print, and many early images (especially tintypes and ambrotypes) have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse.


Later examples show less effort at a lifelike appearance, and often show the subject in a coffin. Some very late examples show the deceased in a coffin with a large group of funeral attendees; this type of photograph was especially popular in Europe and less common in the United States.







I knew nothing of this practice, one which seems so macabre by today's standards, until I stumbled upon it while searching for something else on YouTube. A lot of the videos contained severe warnings about content (so of course I had to look).

And it's true that on the surface of it, the images seem creepy and provoke a visceral response. We're not used to seeing dead people, except perhaps at open-casket funerals. Not used to seeing them arranged like furniture or braced so they could stand up beside their living kin.




But some sites devoted to this strange practice claim (correctly, I think) that post-mortem photography reflects a fascinating and very significant cultural shift in attitudes toward mortality. Death was much closer then, and less sanitized; people died in their beds, were washed and dressed and prepared for burial by loved ones. The camera was magic in those days, a way to paint an instant portrait, but not to be used lightly due to scarcity and cost (i.e. no one owned a camera then; you went to a portrait studio in your best clothing, stood very still, and didn't smile).






The babies are the saddest, of course. Victorian women must have gone through agony in their childbearing years, with primitive or non-existent obstetrics, high mortality rates and a complete absence of birth control. Almost everyone would lose an infant, more likely several. Were people more hardened to loss back then? I doubt it. They had to put their grief somewhere, just as we have to today.


They needed something to hold on to, a memento.  Because there were no Kodak moments then, no digital cameras or cells or any of the gadgets with which we so casually snap a picture, there would be no record of Junior's first smile or first steps or first day of school.




The post-mortem photograph, the only existing image of a baby or a child or even an adult, would be cherished and preserved for generations (as witness the thousands of images I found on the internet). I can feel the melancholy behind this gesture, the aching grief in the attempt to make a dead infant appear "lifelike". 

These waxen dolls are disturbing, but only if seen through our modern abhorrence of anything to do with death. We die in hospitals now, often alone. Life is prolonged past the point of any real meaning: we do it because we can, which has come to mean that we're supposed to, that there's no other choice. Death is the enemy, to be beaten back as long and fiercely as possible.




People "fight" cancer, "triumph" over it or "lose the battle". The medical community seems embarrassed by it all. Disease isn't supposed to happen, and if it does, it must be vanquished. I don't think the Victorians thought in terms of losing battles, or even winning. The majority of them were deeply Christian, which means they believed the dead were gathered up by the Almighty and transported to a better place for all eternity.




Spiritualism became tremendously popular in this era, along with the belief that the ghosts of loved ones sometimes appeared in photos.  And they did, if the photographer knew what he was doing.







The Victorians knew that life and death were separated not by a doorway or a passageway but by a gossamer veil, something the merest breeze could draw aside. These eerie portraits of life-in-death convey a sense of dwelling in that mysterious other world even while still embodied on earth. It's a bizarre and even repugnant concept to us, but not to them.




I try to imagine it. It's hard to go there, to put myself there. I wonder what it would be like to touch a dead baby, to tenderly position it for a portrait under blazing lights, to hold its likeness close for years and years while other children came and went.




Their haunted eyes seem to stare at us through time, through space, even through the mists of death itself.





45 comments:

  1. Yes. I kept telling myself, don't do this, don't go there. It's almost unbearably creepy to look at this, but they weren't doing this to weird themselves out or to be "morbid". It was a dignified procedure meant to preserve the memory of a cherished person. But oh God, those open eyes!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've been having similar problems with posting comments. Mainly, I can't read them. I'm trying to get used to Mozilla and can't manage it, but Internet Explorer no longer works for certain things. A stupid problem: why doesn't it fail altogether? When I try to read or post comments or send an individual post to someone, I get a blank square. (As bad, or worse, as/than a blank stare.)

    ReplyDelete
  3. A lot of people have had trouble with the latest version of Mozilla (8 or 9?). I've put off upgrading for that reason. Google Chrome is supposed to be pretty good, but I tried it and it was too damned complicated.

    I've known living people with blank stares just like those in the photos. Perhaps they were zombies, which are becoming fashionable again.

    ReplyDelete
  4. What's so funny about all this, I mean funny-peculiar, is that it WASN'T odd or funny to the Victorians. In fact, it was a loving and respectful tribute to the memory of the departed. WE see it as macabre because we all think we're going to defeat death with technology and live forever (ironically, because most people agree technology is ultimately going to destroy the human race).

    ReplyDelete
  5. Hi Margret,

    My name is Jacqueline Darnell Gunning, im wondering if there might be any relation??? to be honest with you i stumbled upon this page as i have had a complete and utter obssession with post mortem photos for some time now..... if you would like to contact me here in South Africa please do so on jackie1@live.co.za, i am looking forward to hearing from you.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Very informational - I was always thinking that the photos of people standing up and such were mislabeled by unscrupulous antique dealers - Now I see - it was quite a Jim Henson type production to be photographed post mortem. I have just aquired my second post mortem photo & now your page has educated me a bit more - many thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This is very sad, but so true :(

    ReplyDelete
  8. This is a wonderful and sensitive post, well written and you handle the subject with kindness and understanding that many simply do not have. The Victorian era was just so very different from ours, and yet.... so close, yet so far.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I question some of these with open eyes. Not long after death the eye balls begin to sink back into the skull, and wouldn't look normal.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. They don't look normal.

      Delete
  10. Thank you, Margaret. I spend a lot of time with medical and social work records from the 1st half of the 20th century in China for a Ph.D. dissertation. The stories stick with me in a way I can't quite describe. As medical records, photos are either of living people or parts of their bodies that were removed. The social work narratives live with me, although these people are now gone.

    ReplyDelete
  11. This practice still occurs today - I volunteer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and do infant memorial photography. The pictures are not so disturbing looking, but yes, we photograph babies who have passed so their parents have something to remember of them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bless the work you do. I know of several mothers who have unfortunately had to call upon NILMDTS for portraiture of their lost babies and they so treasure those only images they'll ever have of so much promise lost.

      Delete
  12. IN the old days, I was told, in the SOuth especially, they made these for people who could not travel to attend the funerals, and it allowed closure, as a visitation does. I foun dphotos of my great-great grandparents in my grandmothers' things.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not that old and even my southern grandparents did this.

      Delete
  13. This was very interesting and I try to remove the "weird" factor and see them just as they are, loved ones. How hard that your only memory of your baby is after its passed

    ReplyDelete
  14. Regarding the open eyes... Some of the "open eyes" were painted on the lids, and if you look at many of them, like that man standing up by himself (diagram of post mortem stand beneath him) his eyes looks ANYTHING but "normal". The eyes ALL have a very vacant look to them or else they look peculiar (i.e painted on). Thhe subject of these photos facinates me,t oo... and that bothers me. I have 4 children, aged 2-8 and it IS hard to NOT put yourself in the place of these poor families, when you see these poor children. You catch yourself saying "oh, Lord, if that was one of MY children" then you immediately get disturbed. And of course you are GLAD it isnt one of your own loved ones, but the depth of the subject makes you bond in a heartbreaking way with these people.

    ReplyDelete
  15. excellent post on the subject~ thank you for sharing

    ReplyDelete
  16. As the mother of a stillborn son, I appreciate this discussion. We took pictures of ourselves with our son and treasure those photos greatly, but they can be disturbing to people not comfortable with death, so we keep them in an album rather than in frames. I don't envy their losses, but I do envy Victorians' ability to openly acknowledge their infants' deaths.

    ReplyDelete
  17. Your top picture is of the Irish folk group The Dubliners, here's a picture of them from about the same time;
    http://cps-static.rovicorp.com/3/JPG_250/MI0001/427/MI0001427171.jpg?partner=allrovi.com

    I think, though not positive, its the wake of their lead singer Luke Kelly (on the right in my pic).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not familiar enough with The Dubliners to have an opinion as to whether it's them or not, but Luke Kelly died in 1984, and this photo would be from the mid 1950s- mid/late-60s.

      Delete
    2. My best guess is that the picture is a publicity shot associated with one of the Dubliners' best known songs: Finnegan's wake"

      Delete
  18. Hello back un 1997 I had a stillborn little boy whom I lost at 39 weeks pregnant i have photographs of him which are beautiful to me so I can understand wanting to keep a photograph as a memory

    ReplyDelete
  19. Hello back un 1997 I had a stillborn little boy whom I lost at 39 weeks pregnant i have photographs of him which are beautiful to me so I can understand wanting to keep a photograph as a memory

    ReplyDelete
  20. We are ushered away from death as if it is some sort of shameful secret. This has been especially true of infant death, where parents are made to feel ashamed of their grief. I worked at a children's hospital about 12 years ago. Cutting a long story short, I was required to photocopy a pathology report for a baby who died not long after birth, and who also had physical deformities. I must have photocopied those photos about 6 times before I was satisfied with the quality. I was very anxious that the parents would be upset seeing their baby (the photos were somewhat unsettling), but I was also concerned that they would also want a clear photo of the baby they had never stopped grieving for. When they met with the counsellor, who warned them they might find the photo upsetting, the mother said how much the baby looked like its father (l don't recall if baby was a boy or a girl). I was so relieved when she told me this. I learnt a lot about the grief of losing a child, and in this particular case, how important that picture was to the parents-they had buried their grief for all those years, and the only concrete thing left was baby's post mortem photo. The photos of the children in this blog post are poignant beyond words, not creepy. It shows a maturity about death that we have lost in the intervening years. I'm sure there are many folks out there who wish they had a picture of their deceased child. The photos are dignified and sensitive and must have been of great emotional value to their bereaved parents and wider family.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are such a caring person to have taken the time to make sure the photocopies were the best possible quality for the parents. Not many would take the time to do that today. I agree that the photos here are dignified and quite moving, to me at least. The photos of the children are the most heartbreaking. I can understand why parents and other family members would want to have a keepsake of their loved one. I can remember my own grandmother having a photo of a mother holding her recently deceased child, who appeared to be about 10 years old. I was a child when I first saw that photo and I just thought the mother was holding the child awkwardly; I did not realize the child was dead. It was only later on as an adult did I found out the truth about the photo. I do think it is a shame that we are so 'afraid' of death in today's world. It is a natural part of our existence and yet we want to sanitize it with funeral homes and all the modern trappings of a visitation and funeral. Sometimes I think it would be better if we _could_ die in peace at home, surrounded by loved ones and knowing they will be the ones to handle our body.

      Delete
  21. Okay that is so creepy. Guess who's having nightmares tonight...

    ReplyDelete
  22. I can feel the pain and the loss when looking at these images. Those poor families.

    ReplyDelete
  23. I think these pictures are beautiful. I know, with our thinking today, they seem creepy... and yeah it could be pretty creepy having pictures of dead people. But these pictures are commemorating a life that once was. A life that was short lived. In that era the death rate was high.. expecially in children. We are lucky enough today to have access to cameras where we can take pictures of our childrens (and other loved ones) every second if we choose. This was not an option then. For most, the post mortem photos was the ONLY picture they had of their loved ones. My heart breaks for all the loss back then. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose a child let alone multiple children over a period of time. I have a picture of my grandmother in her casket. It helped me to gain closure by having that. As it most likely did these people so long ago.

    Our society has lost all compassion and been highly desensitized to the fact that death is ALWAYS around the corner.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Fascinating and very moving.

    I didn't know anything about this - as a photographer I find it mind-blowing but remembering grief I recall how important that last visual memory is.

    Thank you for your efforts and insights, S

    ReplyDelete
  25. ALBUM OF PHOTOGRAPHS POST MORTEM

    That album of old photographs,
    I took in my hands to look;
    As old and shabby, poses with dark,
    My soul yearned images stare ...

    Old photographs, gloomy, dark,
    Sad memories of those moments.
    Sitting and standing, the morbid figures,
    They seemed to sleep in grim faces ...

    They were souls who died in the bed!
    In Memoriam exposed as dismal,
    Also figured a small infant ...

    Seeing those faces, reflected no fear!
    I know my future will arrive sooner,
    Maybe later, soon or later ...


    Poem By Blog Lírio das Almas
    (Lily of Souls)
    São Paulo - Brazil

    ReplyDelete
  26. Margaret--I am wondering about the photo of the little girl with her hand at her brow...It looks to me like she has a thermometer in her mouth. Is she just ill, or certainly dead? The eyes seem strange...if she is indeed pm, is this a case of painting the eyes over the lid? If so, it's very detailed, but not at all impossible to do. The lowest arc under her eye could be the closed lid, if you cover the rest of the eye with a pencil or something. Your thoughts?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I looked at the photo again, and I believe you're right about the thermometer. I see it, too. I can't imagine taking a portrait with a thermometer in her mouth, alive or dead. So what's up with that?

      Delete
  27. My nephew was 2 when he died a few weeks ago, and I was by his side every day for the 2 weeks that he was dying. It was very dignified, and I held his hand, kissed him, talked to him the whole time. Even in the hours after he died, when he was cold, it wasn't difficult.

    Until the funeral. I had to put his shoes on, and I just couldn't do it. The stiffness didn't make it impossible, it just really hit me then. I couldn't imagine the parents of these children having to position them when their bodies were that way...

    ReplyDelete
  28. The top image definitely is the Dubliners. Most likely its a promotional shot from the same session that provided this 1966 album cover.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Finnegan_alt.jpg

    Finnigan's Wake is a 19th century Irish ballad, recorded by the group, which also provided James Joyce with the title for his 1939 novel, Finnegans Wake [sic].

    ReplyDelete
  29. I would love to know more about the last picture of the beautiful baby girl. If you have any information.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Not all of the post mortem photos were so easy to spot. Writing a lovely blog about this subject is so titillating when you show only gruesome and creepy dead babies, gives you the impression that the only photographs of post mortem children were the “in your face dead babies and toddlers”. Most post mortem photos are sweet and sad and very respectful, you see a life, not a death. The “in your face dead” was a later transformation as more middle class had access to photography and the abundance of less talented photographers who did not take the time to pose subjects as lifelike as possible. There are subtle hints. I have seen many, many, many post mortem photos, they certainly don't catch the eye as well as the preceding photos. I see so many wonderful examples of post mortem children and so many “Post Mortem????” EBay rip-offs, some wonder what we value anymore.
    I just don't think there is a definitive answer, some children looked very much alive although they were very much dead. To the contrary not all children with eyes closed or creepy expressions or blank stares are dead, some are just that, really creepy kids. I like to believe in good old fashioned intuition, it's just genetically programed into our subconscious to know when someone is dead and in many photos there are subtle hints, you just have to look.

    ReplyDelete
  31. As a parent who lost a baby to miscarriage...the void carries on. You have certain expectations, they are stifled and cut short before they have a chance to begin. Not having the opportunity to hold my unborn baby, touch its tiny little hands...it leaves no room for closure but a void that lingers. The only "proof" I had that my baby was ever real...the sonogram photo. Even that allows me to know that the pain I still carry was for a reason. It wasn't real to everyone else, but it was certainly real to me. Something as simple as a photo...even a poor one...can become a priceless treasure to anyone experience grief and loss. Thank you for being so sensitive about this post and for sharing the information.

    ReplyDelete
  32. I am a graveyard photographer, and many times I come across graves of children that died so many years ago that their siblings are probably dead too, and that headstone is the only record of their passing. I couldnt make up my mind about these post mortem images initially, but as I read more over the months they began to be less creepy and more of a last impression of that loved one. I think that black and white photography does give them a slightly surreal feel, and I doubt if it would work well in colour. I have a niece in my family that drowned when she was just over 4, and many times I wish there was some record of her in pictures, but alas there is nothing.

    ReplyDelete
  33. Not all are postmortem -- the head vise, etc. was used to keep the subject still for a minutes-long exposure, and were common in early photo studios.

    ReplyDelete