Memento Mori – Remember You Must Die
Post mortem photography is the practice of capturing a person’s image right after death. The ideals and feelings about death during the Victoria era gave people a desire to honor the dead by saving mementos. Quickly after the invention of the first camera in 1839, post mortem photography became an increasing demand among mourners. It was an easy way to memorialize the deceased in a quick fashion, instead of a time consuming portrait painting. Photography was also a more affordable option, although, still pricey and only done on rare occasions.
When a loved one passed away most families did not have a photograph or a way to visually remember the departed. Usually a post mortem photo was the only picture taken of a person and became the only documentation of their appearance. The images depict the last time the family would be with the deceased and taking a photograph was a way for families to grieve over the body. Although it’s seen as taboo by today’s standards, post mortem photos gave families their own keepsakes so they were always able to remember their loved one’s likeness.
Asleep or Deceased?
Early post mortem photography usually depicted the body laying down, or in a state of rest. This helped the family visualize the deceased as if they were in their last sleep, or in a peaceful state. Usually these photographs concentrated on the face and head. The deceased seems as if they are in a perpetual state of rest instead of dead.
Poor, Dear Children
A popular subject around the mid 19th century was children and babies. Mothers morning the death of their children were often photographed with the children in a last embrace. During this time photographers also started to include other elements into the shot that were of significance to the dead; such as a child’s favorite toy, or a prized possession. This helped tell the story of the person after their death and gave the photograph more meaning to the viewer.
Limp, Blurry, and Gone
As post mortem photography progressed, photographers attempted to make the bodies look like they were still alive. They often tried to use natural light, camera angles and poses to capture the deceased’s likeness as much as possible. In most cases photographers even opened the eyelids and then adjusted the eyeball to its natural living position, instead of rolled back into the head. Other times photographers would paint eyes onto the finished print. Families would sometimes surround the propped up body to take the last photo.
Cameras at that time were at their infancy, shutters were not quick, and subjects had to remain very still in order to not appear blurry. However, people were not able to stand perfectly still for the amount of time needed, so most photos of the living came out a little blurry. Movement is inevitable and no matter how much the subject tried, they could never stand perfectly still. However, the dead could. In most post mortem photos the deceased are very clear and sharp because they are absolutely motionless, while the family surrounding are less in focus due to their natural stirring.
Post Mortem Pictures: Gruesome, but Beautiful
Two factors caused post mortem photography to lose popularity. The first was the introduction to embalming; mourners were able to view the bodies and say goodbye at the funeral. The second was camera technology. As camera’s became more affordable and easily accessible, the public started to take photos of everyday events. People took photos depicting them in real life, so there was no longer a need to photograph someone after death.
Whether dead or alive, we all have the desire to look at photographs of loved ones who have passed. Although post mortem photography may seem creepy to us today, it filled the need for people to look back at the lives of their family members and reminisce.