Post-Mortem Photography: Gleaning Insight into the Death Rituals of the Victorian-Age Americans
There are many aspects of Victorian mourning; from the colours, materials, and even cuts allowed for the mourning garb of the deceased's relatives, to the many stages of mourning for a widowed woman, to the final act of saying goodbye for the last time. This article focuses on but one aspect, though it is unnamed amongst the above-mentioned few; that is postmortem photography.
Postmortem photography, in its simplest form, is essentially a photograph of a recently deceased person. The invention of photography in the year 1839 by Louis Daguerre made it possible for lower-caste families, who could not afford painted portraits, to sit for a picture. This ultimately allowed for photography to rise in popularity in the United States. It was estimated that from 1841 to 1860, about 30 million photographs were taken in America. However, as mortality rates were sky-high at the time, few people had the opportunity to smile for the camera while living and breathing. And thus, the concept of postmortem photography was born.
The very idea of postmortem photography may seem morbid, if not a little disturbing to us children of the 21st century. Our ancestors, however, lived in an age of fear and doubt, where death may claim a soul at any given time with little certainty of where and when. A photograph of the recently deceased is then viewed as a means of keeping the memory of the dead; often, the picture of a deceased infant was the only proof of his or her existence. A daughter who loses her mother to childbirth may have a memoir of her deceased mother. A widowed wife may keep the memory of her dead husband, and hold it close to her heart. These photographs mean something to those who are left behind; they are necessary and normal for dealing with grief.
There are several styles in which the subjects of post-mortem photography may be posed. At some point in time, most of the deceased subjects were posed to appear as if they were deep within a peaceful slumber. This effect is usually obtained by placing the subject upon a sofa or a bed amidst pillows and sheets. Props such as crosses, flowers, and toys for deceased infants and children were frequently added to the setting; often, one could tell if the photograph was a post-mortem one, from the sightings of these props.
In the earlier days of post-mortem photography, it was customary to obtain close-up images of adults, and full-length shots of children. At the time, caskets weren't always readily available, so the subjects were sometimes placed upon boards with ice underneath them so as to preserve them. By the time the Civil War had ended, however, embalming had become more common, and the deceased could then be photographed in their caskets. It has been noted, in many post-mortem photographs of the era, that the deceased was posed in their caskets, which were placed in the common living rooms of their homes. Such a room may also be referred to as the 'death room'.
In due time, it became popular to pose the deceased so that they appeared alive in their photographs. Often, this was done by propping the deceased up in a chair, in order to achieve the impression of the deceased being seated upright. Sometimes, the deceased's eyes were left wide open, and at other times, the photograph was doctored to create the illusion of opened eyes. It was also not uncommon for parents, especially mothers, to pose with deceased children, most notably infants, in their arms.
These photographs were traditionally proudly displayed upon mantelpieces of Victorian American homes. However, these days, one would be considered morbidly disturbed, if one were to display such pictures within their houses. Although this practice has endured the ages amongst the believers in the faiths of the Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Christians, in this modernised world, this practice does not count for much anymore. How the times have changed, and how our mindsets have changed.