Living in the 21st century there are many things that we have today , that those in past centuries would never think we have today like cell-phones, technology and computers. I often think about past centuries that lived basically in the dark ages with no electricity, no running water and the basic necessities we take for granted today did not exist back then.
One those areas I tend to think about is photography. Although photography has been around for quite some time I often found Post mortem photography strange and creepy. I guess my first experience of some reference to this type of photography was in the 2001 film “The Others”. For those who remember this film has Nicole Kidman. The film centers around Nicole Kidman and her kids in 1945 living in a remote country house in Jersey. Kidman (Grace) hires three new servants-housekeeper Mrs. Betha Mills, gardener Edmund Tuttle and mute girl named Lydia. Odd things begin to happen in the house and Grace fears there are unknow “others” present. She then finds a 19th century photo album of mourning portrait photographs. When Grace asks Mrs. Mills about her previous experience in the house, Mrs. Mills recounts that many left due to an outbreak of tuberculosis.
This is where my interest in so called mourning portraits took place and then I began to search the sad cases of why this was done. As you can imagine a deathbed portrait is a portrait of a person who has recently died, or lying in repose. These were not rare in European homes of well-to-do people as a way of remembering and honoring the dead. People where generally laid out in their best clothes with some sort of headdress, and some sort of token in their hands.
Another form of memorial portraiture was a practice of photographing the recently deceased. Various cultures use and have used this practice. The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 which was on the first photography processes invented 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. Before this technological advancement, post-mortem portraitures were restricted to the upper class, who continued to commemorate the deceased with this new method.
This form of photography was most common in the nineteenth century when “death occurred in the home and was quite an ordinary part of life. As photography became the new medium, even those of infants and young children were photographed which would be one of the only photographs many would have. The long exposure time made deceased subjects easy to photograph. These photographs served as keepsakes to remember the deceased.
Post-mortem photography as early as 1970’s was taken up by artist and continues today. Personal post-mortem photography is considered to a largely private with the exception of the public circulation.
In America, post-mortem photography became an increasingly private practice by the mid to late nineteenth century. Today is not as widely used but I am sure it still exists for private use such as those who attend a funeral wish to take pictures, which I find strange but I can understand the in mourning we want to have lasting images of our loved ones but I doubt anyone would want to look at those pictures in remembrance when one can look at pictures when the person was alive.
I wonder if this type of photography will ever make a come back and maybe there , but who would want this , now that we have cellphones that can take professional quality pictures that we can keep safety on the cloud.
Yes these photographs were from another time, by looking at many of these many would believe that is how those loved ones captured the souls of those who passed on photos. Many posed as if they never died in the first place.
I would also like to bring your attention to Death, Immortalized: Victorian Post-Mortem Photography – Clara Barton Museum which is a doctoral student by the name of Melissa DeVelvis a student of history in University of South Carolina, specializing in the civil war era. Here is some of she discovered :
“Americans in the 1800s were far more intimately acquainted with death than we are today. Most of this was out of necessity–before embalming procedures became popularized, it was the duty of the family to quickly prepare the body for a viewing and burial. Families would typically hold viewings in their own parlors at home, a tradition that later gave funeral parlors their name. The birth of the funeral industry in the early twentieth century and the growth of large, sanitized hospitals brought about a shift in the way Americans interacted with death.”
“The presence of a dead relative in the family photo is not the only aspect of Victorian death culture that would cause many to shudder in discomfort today. Many carried their loved ones’ locks of hair, and even more had this hair made into jewelry or woven with other strands to make a family hair wreath. This was considered “sentimental jewelry,” with the understanding that they could keep a concrete, physical, and timeless piece of their loved one with them even after death.”
Thinking about the words of Melissa states why is that society is less comfortable talking about today then in Victorian times, could it be that we just so desensitized to death seeing all the death today in the news, television and film among other medians. Could it be that people tended to appreciate their loved ones more at those times and many times we take for granted our loved ones will be here longer, but we should never take those friends and loved ones for granted.
Much of what they did in Victorian times we certainty would find strange like carrying around a sentimental piece of hair or flesh as a remembrance.
This piece as always is remembering and in no way to creep you out but to educate you as always. Thank you for always going on this wild ride of discovery, you never know with me.
Lately I have been watching the HBO series Carnivale and one of the interesting parts including Death masks. Honestly I have never heard of a death mask before but it was interesting to see how were used a mementos of the dead. I am not sure if these are still done today and who would want one, but I can see that this would allow someone to physically touch and remember ones face after death like a loved one, a child even who dead.
Here’s an example of one that I see is very life like and can understand the draw to having these made and probably not every hard to make as they were typically made of plaster or wax.
I have and continued to be interested in the past as many times we try to hold on to the past especially whose who have passed on. I think now today we need to remember the good things in our life and those people in our life we tend to forget about and take for granted.
I am not adovating to bring back death photography or death masks. I am sure people still take pictures of the dead which I have always found strange. I remember when my grandfather passed in 94 my aunts and uncles took pictures of her in her coffin and also my great grandmother as well.
Death is apart of our lives whether we like it or now, Many feel they will never die, but we are not in control of death, we all have an expiration date whether we agree with it or not. I find is especially hard to except when children die becaues they dont fully get a chance to live life and have a real chance to hopefully make some difference, but again their deaths are not up to me. It does anger me when children especially are murdered and killed, but its just as hard when they die of sickness and disease.
Thank you for once again going on these strange journeys that stay deep in my mind, death being one of them as I too have come close to death due to my own hand many many years go. I am thankful to still be here to enjoy my wife, daughter and family as we all should.
2 thoughts on “My Morbid Curiosity with Victorian Post-Mortem Photography and Death masks”
Such an interesting subject!
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Yes, thank you . What triggered this was many years ago when I watched the film The Others. Thank You for reading.