ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Christine Trent writes the Lady of Ashes historical mystery series, centering on the adventures of a Victorian-era undertaker. The latest book in the series, STOLEN REMAINS, will be out in May 2014, followed by A VIRTUOUS DEATH, which will be released in November 2014. Two more books in the series are planned for 2015.
Christine writes historical fiction from her two-story home library. She lives with her wonderful bookshelf-building husband, five precocious cats, a large doll collection, and nearly 4,000 fully cataloged books. She and her husband are active travelers and journey regularly to England to conduct book research at historic sites.
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“Blessed be the inventor of photography! I set him above even the inventor of chloroform! It has given more positive pleasure to poor suffering humanity than anything else that has cast up in my time or is like to -- this art by which even the poor can possess themselves of tolerable likenesses of their absent dear ones."
From a letter by Jane Welsh Carlyle, 1860
We’ve all heard the common refrain that the Victorians were obsessed with death. This is a perspective with which I heartily disagree: I think they simply had a healthier respect for it than we do today. However, that viewpoint is never articulated better than in the pictures taken of dead bodies, known as post-mortem photographs, mourning portraits, or memento mori. (See a selection of these photos HERE.)
Post-mortem photographs can be recognized by either the subject’s closed eyes or vacant stare, or sometimes by the body held at an odd position (usually the result of props used to keep the body in place).
Such photography became popular in the Victorian era because (1) the technology became accessible during this timeframe with ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, and tintypes all offering various levels of quality and durability; and (2) it was an opportunity for the middle class to immortalize their loved ones.
Mourning portraits might be done at home, or in a photographer’s studio. Imagine transporting your recently-dead loved one to a studio for photo session! The corpse was frequently arranged to appear as lifelike as possible; unless, of course, the body was posed in a coffin.
Embalming became popular in the U.S. during the Civil War, but never particularly caught on in Victorian England. Thus, mourning portraits had to be made quickly after death, since the body would need to be buried within a few short days. It makes these photographs particularly poignant to view, knowing that the child that lay in his mother’s arms has probably been dead mere hours.
These photographs would be of great comfort to those left behind. Because the technology was so new, few people had the dozens—if not hundreds—of shots of a single person that we do today. In fact, the post-mortem photograph might be the very first time someone’s picture was taken, especially among those who could have never afforded a painted portrait.
Photography also offered a nearly instantaneous way of having a mourning portrait. Waiting for an artist to paint a likeness of someone who needed to be put into the ground was impractical, and would probably add to the grief and distress of the family members.
The later invention of the carte de visite, whereby multiple prints could be made from a single image, provided a way for the family to mail copies of the photograph to relatives.
What happened to mourning portraiture? The practice peaked at the end of the 19th century as “snapshot” photography became the norm. Soon, families had a cheap, simple way to take almost limitless pictures of their loved ones while they were alive. In addition, infant mortality rates began dwindling—in the U.S. and England, at least—thus eliminating the need to capture an image of a child who may have only been alive a very short time.
Today, post-mortem images are popular collectible items, along with mourning jewelry and other sentimental Victorian death memorabilia. However, the actual practice of taking these pictures is now viewed as vulgar or sensationalist in nature. Ironic, isn’t it?
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Are post-mortem photographs morbid, or could they stil serve a purpose today? Would you want to be immortalized in this way?
Tell us by commenting on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a a copy of STOLEN REMAINS! (U.S. entrants only, please.)
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