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~A note to the faint-hearted: this post contains photographs of dead people ~

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The Victorian celebration of death

It has been noted by many other writers, that today when a loved one passes over, we celebrate their life, often avoiding or glossing over the distressing fact that they have died… almost as if it would be rude to mention it.  Not so our Victorian ancestors, they positively revelled in rituals that celebrated death.  This was unsurprising as it was all around them – poverty, incurable diseases and insanitary housing meant that had you lived in early Victorian England (the 1830 and 40’s) you would have been lucky to make it to your late thirties; while a fifth of children born at that time would not reach the age of five.[1]

Yet despite these grim statistics, the Victorian fondness for funerals and funeral rituals grew out of more than just a pragmatic realisation that they would undoubtedly be attending an awful a lot of them.  It was far more than that, the spiritual and religious beliefs of Victorians lead them to the view that death was something to prepare for, and that the dead should be remembered, not just in their living but in the manner of their passing.  To have a ‘good death’ was important, to settle ones affairs not only materially, but spiritually as well, in preparation for the transition into the next phase of the souls existence.  One aspect of this tradition which can seem macabre and slightly voyeuristic to the modern eye, is that of post-mortem photography. But creating images of the dead was not invented in the nineteenth century.

How the dead were remembered: from oil paintings to Carte de visite

Lady Venetia Digby on her death bed by Van Dyke.

Lady Venetia Digby on her death-bed, by Van Dyke.

Preserving the memory of the dead has a long history (and pre-history). From the monumental (think pyramids, mausoleums and tombs) to the personal and portable (such as jewelry and images).  While we might find it odd to want an image of a loved one in death, in the past it was not unheard of. In the seventeenth century, when the beautiful Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, died unexpectedly in her sleep, her distraught husband had her final portrait painted, post-mortem, by non other that Sir Anthony Van Dyke. But such extravagant memento mori (translated as ‘remember that you have to die’) were the preserve of the wealthy upper classes…until, that is, the advent of photography.

Capturing the soul

Post Mortem photography was popular in the UK, USA and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, its popularity peaking in the 1860’s and 70’s. Its rise began in the 1840’s with the birth of photography.

Louis Daguerre, one of the fathers of photography, developed his eponymous Daguerreotype in 1839.  Daguerreotype images were produced on treated silver-plated copper sheets, protected by glass.  The images are strange to look at and change from positive to negative, depending on the angle.  The process was expensive and time-consuming – it could take up to 15 minutes to develop an exposure, and the images created were fragile (often having to be protected in cases or frames).[2][3] Nevertheless it wasn’t long before they were being used to capture the likenesses of the deceased.

Post Mortem Daguerreotype. 1862. Source Astronomy Pictures.

Post Mortem Daguerreotype. 1862. Source Astronomy Pictures.

In 1850 the cheaper Ambrotype method superseded the Daguerreotype.  This process created a positive image on glass.  As with the daguerreotype, the finished product was fragile and each image was unique and could only be reproduced by the camera.[4]

Victorian Post Mortem Ambrotype, in case. Source unknown.

Victorian Post Mortem Ambrotype displayed in a case. Source unknown.

The 1860’s and 1870’s brought the tintype photograph to prominence, which as the name suggested was created on a thin sheet of metal.  This method easy to produce and was popular with itinerant photographers on the move.  So the photographer was able to extend beyond the studio setting to other arenas…such the open battlefield, or the private deathbed.[5]

Tintype post mortem photograph. Source unknown.

Tintype post-mortem photograph. Source unknown.

The biggest revolution in democratizing photography was the Carte de Visite method, patented by André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854.  His method produced small images made up of albumen prints on card.  The truly revolutionary aspect of this method was that he developed a way of producing up to eight negatives on one plate, thereby driving down costs.[5] This meant that images could more easily be shared amongst family and friends.  With post-mortem images, it allowed family members who were not able to be present at the deathbed or funeral, to have a final image of their loved one.

Carte de visite post mortem image. Paul Frecker collection.

Carte de visite post-mortem image. Paul Frecker collection.

Post Mortem Photography and The Good Death

In the early and mid-Victorian period, evangelical Christianity had a strong influence on attitudes towards death and dying.  Professor Sir Richard Evans noted in his lecture The Victorians: Life and Death, that the emphasis was on a ‘good death’ – ideally a peaceful and gentle transition in to the afterlife, witnessed by family and friends; where a deathbed struggle with fever or delusion occurred, it could be seen as a metaphor for the Christian struggle for redemption.  Post mortem photography represents part of this tradition, offering a memento mori – an object of reflection to the yet living – as well as, more prosaically, providing symbol of social status because not everyone could afford them.

That is not to say that all Victorians were comfortable with the idea of snapping images the dearly departed – far from it.  As Catharine Arnold notes in Necropolis, photographic images such ‘Fading Away’, created by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858, which used actors to depict the death of a beautiful young girl, were not universally praised.[6] Unlike the tasteful and idealised deathbed scenes depicted in oils, the disturbing intimacy and realism created by the medium of photography seemed to intrude on the very personal and private realm of grief.

'Fading Away' by Henry Peach Robinson, 1858. The Royal Photographic Society at the National Media Museum.

‘Fading Away’ by Henry Peach Robinson, 1858. The Royal Photographic Society at the National Media Museum, Bradford.

In the case of ‘Fading Away’, the image was saved from censure when Prince Albert bought a copy, thereby ensuring its popular appeal. It’s a good thing he liked images of deathbeds, because Queen Victoria commissioned both a painting and a photograph of him on his own deathbed, in 1861.  These images are available to view in the Royal Collection (See links at the end of this article).

Styles of post-mortem photography ranged throughout the nineteenth century and varied from the UK and Europe to the USA.  Broadly speaking the earlier images focused on head shots and close ups, with the subject apparently ‘asleep’, later more ‘naturalist’ poses were adopted -where the subject was posed as if in life, and later still the funeral group – with the family gathered round for one last photo with the dearly departed in their coffin – became popular.  However the significant difference between these images and images such as ‘Fading Away’, is that post-mortem photography was intended to be viewed in the private sphere, whereas Peach Robinson’s staged image was clearly for public consumption.

Mirrors with Memories [7]

Deceased man. Source Wikipedia.

Deceased man in a naturalist pose c1860. Source Wikipedia.

So, why did the Victorians do it? Why have a stranger come into your home, while you are grieving, and interfere with your loved one, simply in order to take a photo?  Well, it seems that a number of factors collided to produce the right climate for it: evangelical Christianity, with its concept of the good death, technological developments, and the rise of the middle classes, along with a large dash of Victorian morbidity.

In some cases, these images may have been the only images taken of the individual, this is particularly possible with images of babies and young children. And, practically speaking, they were a way of sharing the death of a loved one with relatives unable to attend the actual deathbed.

Deceased child surrounded by flowers. Image Source BBC.

Deceased child surrounded by flowers. Image Source Wikipedia.

However, as well as a personal remembrance of the individual, they were also used as a way to reflect upon death – demonstrating Victorian preoccupations with both piety and morbidity. The images allowed for a dialogue between the living and the dead – a reconciliation that the viewer too will die.  A Victorian viewing these images would have been able to ‘read’ them in a very different way than we do now -identifying the spiritual narrative, shared social values, the moral lessons in these images.

Jo Smoke, writing in Beyond the Dark Veil,[8]suggested that as well as a moral and spiritual purpose, Memento Mori can also be seen as expressing class goals by equating ‘taste and beauty as metaphors for status and style’ – after all these images were often displayed in beautiful and expensive frames or jeweled cases and not every one could afford them.

He concluded that post mortem photography successfully encompassed both the spiritual and the consumerist nature of Victorian society, stating that they ‘symbolised tangibility by stretching the inevitability of human decay into the future by investing memory into materials of great physicality’.[9]

Identifying Post Mortem Photography

Today, the internet is flooded with images purporting to be Victorian post mortem photographs. Sometimes a sort of ‘check-list’ is deployed to identify them and although one can probably assume that an individual depicted in a coffin, is almost certainly dead, other signs such as closed or painted eyes, blank expressions, visible standing frames, or strange posture aren’t necessarily proof-positive of a post mortem photograph.

The tradition of depicting the deceased as though living, often accompanied by living relatives and children, has created even more difficulty in differentiating between what may simply be an awkward and uncomfortable looking living individual and a posed corpse.

Deceased young girl, with her parents. Source BBC.

Deceased young girl with her parents. Source BBC.

In the above post mortem image, the dead girl is propped up by her parents, with her head on one side.  She appears notably sharper than her living parents who appear slightly blurred. Even when developments in photography led to reduced exposure times, it was still difficult to remain still during the process (unless of course, you were dead).  This was such a problem that the living were often supported with apparatus, such as a Brady Stand.  The use of these stands has led to what some call the ‘Myth of the standing corpse’ [10] – whereby any images of a slightly suspect individual, where a stand is visible, may be identified as post mortem (a particular problem on commercial selling sites).

The Stand is visible, but is this man dead? Source hchronicles blog.

This man has decidedly odd eyes and is supported by a Stand – but is he dead? Source: hchronicles blog.

This image has often been described as a post mortem photo - but the jury is out. Image source - unknown.

This image has often been described as a post mortem photo, demonstrating the use of the stand – but the jury is out. Image source – unknown.

However there seems to be a strong argument against the possibility that the Brady stand, or any other stand (even combined with wires), could have ever actually support the dead-weight (pardon the pun) of a corpse, in anything approaching a natural manner. [11][12 – see the video at the foot of this post for more on this debate.]

The girl in the middle is said to be dead. Petrolia Archive Collection.

The girl in the middle is said to be dead. Petrolia Archive Collection.

The image above, originally from the Petrolia Archive, appears on many sites online as a post mortem photograph. The young girl in the middle is supposed to be dead – her painted on eyes are cited as evidence for it. However, given the ease at which a photograph could be spoiled by a sudden twitch or blink during the long exposure time, it can be argued that this is not necessarily certain proof that the subject is dead. [13] And in fact, this could explain a lot of the blank, dead-eyed stares that gaze out from us from some of these photographs.

Other images are more obviously photo-shopped, such as this fabulously gruesome image of two sisters, which would stretch even the Victorians capacity for morbidity!

Image often cited as Victorian Post Mortem, but actually an art project from 2009. [Artist unknown]

Image often cited as Victorian Post Mortem, but actually an art project from about 2009. [Artist unknown]

The original picutre [Source Unknown]

The original picture before manipulation [Source Unknown]

 Changing attitudes

It has been said that the advent of the Kodak box brownie, allowing families to document entire lives from birth to death, caused the Post Mortem Photograph to fall out of favour, [14] but there was more to its decline than technical innovation.  By the end of the Victorian period and beginning of the Edwardian, there was a fundamental shift in attitudes to death. For one, evangelical Christianity, with its particular interpretation of the ‘good death’, had waned. By the Edwardian period a ‘good death’ had transformed into one more familiar to us today – a death without suffering or one that took the subject unawares, such as in their sleep.  As such, conversations about death and dying became less acceptable than they had been in the early and mid-Victorian periods.  Catastrophic conflicts such as the First World War, also played their part in changing attitudes.  Such brutal conflicts took death away from the intimate family setting, and while death could be presented as a patriotic sacrifice to the state, it often occurred violently, or to far from home to allow for a photographic memento mori to be either desirable or practically possible.

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In this modern world, where we have become desensitized to the graphic images of death reported in the media, we have shut death out, except in its most extreme and impersonal form.  In contrast, these quiet, contemplative and very personal images of the dead offer us the opportunity to open a dialogue with death, and to reflect on that great leveler.  And of course, they also provide an ever so  gentle reminder that we too will die.

Memento Mori.

By Philippe de Champaigne - Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork, Public Domain,

Post Mortem Images on the net

Anne Longmore-Etheridge Collection:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/60861613@N00/albums/72157629160486891/with/23906381332/

Petrolia Heritage

http://www.petroliaheritage.com/people.html

Royal Collection:

https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/2506826/prince-albert-on-his-deathbed-december-1861

The Burns Archive:

http://www.burnsarchive.com/Explore/Historical/Memorial/index.html

The Thanatos Archive:

http://thanatos.net/preview/

Sources and notes

Arnold, Catharine, ‘Necropolis: London and its dead’ 2007, Simon and Schuster [3] [6]

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-36389581

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/overview_victorians_01.shtml [1]

Evans, Professor Sir Richard, https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-victorians-life-and-death

http://metro.co.uk/2014/11/26/victorian-post-mortem-photographs-are-as-creepy-as-they-sound-4963836/ [this article contains some disputed post mortem photographs]

http://mourningportraits.blogspot.co.uk/p/hoaxes-scams-ebay-optimism.html [13]

Mord, Jack, ‘Beyond the Dark Veil’, 2013, Grand Central Press [7][8][9][14]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambrotype [4]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carte_de_visite [5]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daguerreotype [2]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tintype [5]

https://dealer042.wixsite.com/post-mortem-photos The Myth of the stand alone corpse [10][11][12]

 

 

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