Death is an inevitable part of life. Famous people or not, no one is spared from it. Yet even in our modern culture and society, death is still considered as a taboo subject – it is discussed only when necessary, and even so, people talk about it in a hushed manner.
But during the 19th century – especially in the Victorian era – death seemed to be commonplace. Not surprisingly, people embraced death and the stark reality of it. This is not unusual, as death was all around them. According to author Robert Hirsche in his publication Seizing the Light: a Social History of Photography: “death occurred in the home and was quite an ordinary part of life.” Incurable diseases, poverty, poor sanitation, and miserable housing conditions crippled people way back then. The average lifespan during the Victorian era was only about 40 years – if you lived past those years, you would have been lucky. A fifth of the children born at that time would not be able to reach five years of age.
Photography was still a novel medium and a form of art way back then. Not to mention it was expensive, as it was laborious and time-consuming. It is due to the fact that it could take up to about 15 minutes to develop an exposure. And because of the long exposure, the dead – especially children and infants – were often the most preferred subjects for making photographed portraitures.
It was not uncommon for Victorian-era families to pose for photographs alongside with their recently deceased loved ones. These post-mortem photos are called “memento mori”, which is the Latin phrase for “remember that you will die.” Families valued these post-mortem photographed portraits as treasured keepsakes and precious remembrances of their dead loved ones.
The art “memento mori,” needless to say, flourished during the Victorian era. Recently deceased persons were meticulously posed and made to look as if they were alive. Children were often made to pose in their beds, alongside flowers and their favorite toys, or even alongside their families. Sometimes, they were made to look as if they were only sleeping in beds, clutching their teddy bears. It was not uncommon for dead babies to be photographed in the arms of their mother.
As for photographing adult corpses, they were fully dressed and often made sitting or standing. The “Brady stand” was a common metal device way back then. It was designed to keep the living subjects steady during the long exposure. But whether or not the Brady stand was also used to support a dead person’s heavy weight for the post-mortem portraitures is still a subject for debate.
Often, the deceased adults were surrounded by their families or held by their parents or spouses. Some of them were photographed with flowers. In some earliest forms of photography, such as tintypes and ambrotypes, a rosy tint was added to the cheeks of the corpse to make it appear life-like. Closed eyelids were often painted to make as if the dead’s eyes were still open.
A shift of attitudes towards death
The invention of the Kodak “Brownie,” made it possible for people to document everything from birth to death. It has been said that the Brownie caused post-mortem photography to fall out of favor.
However, there were more significant factors other than technical innovation that led to post-mortem photography’s demise.
By the end of the Victorian period, people began to see death in a different light – that the idea of “good death” is death without suffering that took people unaware, such as dying in their sleep. This idea of “good death” has persisted and become to be the “painless death,” which we are more familiar with today.
Natural disasters, as well as catastrophic conflicts such as World War I, also contributed to the change in people’s attitudes towards death. Such violent conflicts took death away from home, making it impossible for families to have an intimate memento mori setting. But even if that was possible, a photographic memento mori was now considered less desirable or practical than it had been way back then.
Nowadays, we have become desensitized by the graphic images of dead people reported by the media. Because of these factors, personal conversations about death and dying had become less acceptable than they had been. Death has now become a taboo subject and is only discussed in hushed whispers.
However, the memento mori photographs of the past offer us an opportunity to have an open and no-holds-barred dialogue with death. And most of all, these morbid but beautiful post-mortem portraits serve as a gentle reminder that we too shall leave this earth someday.