Victorian post-mortem photography

Via a fascinating blog that was pointed out to me (Morbid Anatomy), I came across a story from last winter about how a Colorado nonprofit organization is reviving a Victorian custom about which I had been largely ignorant, namely the custom of taking photographs of recently deceased loved ones as mementos. Indeed, the photographs were known as "memento mori." The group, called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, takes carefully posed photographs that are truly astonishing. Although the concept may sound morbid, the results are not (although I really, really wish the website would get rid of the sappy music; it detracts from the power of the images rather than enhancing it). Although before I might actually have thought it rather morbid to record such images, now I"m not so sure.

After perusing the images above, for instance, you could take a look at some of the Victorian-era memento mori images. What struck me the most about these images were two things. First, they were mostly children. Whether this is due to a greater tendency of parents to want to memorialize a child who died or whether it was due to the appalling infant mortality rate 150 years ago, I don't know, although my guess would be both, but with a greater contribution from the latter. The second thing that caught my attention was how elaborately posed some of these photos were. For example:

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These photos were often displayed along with other family photos. Indeed, some of them were taken just like any other family photo:

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The tradition, apparently, even extended to the family pet.

In our present, death-fearing and death-denying society, I doubt that memento mori will ever become as popular as it was in Victorian times and even well into the 20th century, and I really doubt that it will ever return to the point where many families would display such photos prominently. Given the universal need for humans to remember loved ones who have died, however, it's a custom that will probably never go away, even if the photos are kept in albums or, as is becoming more and more common these days, on a CD or computer hard drive. As Kristan Tetans put it:

The origins of memento mori photographs can be traced back nearly to the beginning of photography itself. During the nineteenth century, post-mortem portraits were used to acknowledge and mourn the death of a loved one, especially a baby or child. All social classes engaged in the practice, which became more widespread after the introduction of the daguerrotype in 1839. The subjects of the photos were generally arranged to appear as if peacefully asleep, all their earthly suffering ended. Displayed prominently in the household alongside other family photographs, the portraits helped heal grieving hearts by preserving some trace of the deceased.

And they still do.

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I work at an archival library, and we have a lot of memento mori. My favorite one is a bracelet with the photograph of the dead person as a cameo, and the band woven from the person's hair. CREEPY!

I find these pics deeply creepy.

I think part of the reason we don't see these kinds of pictures more often in the modern era is that photography is so ubiquitous that even a premie who lives for a few hours will have a well documented life. Back in the day, photography was a much more elaborate set up and people, especially babies, died before an expensive photo shoot could be arranged.

I imagine that, given the choice, most people would rather have images of the living than the dead.

Remember how long one had to hold still for a photograph in those days. This may have been the only opportunity for a good picture of a child.

Off topic, Orac, you might be interested in writing about this story in Sunday's Washington Post about "Morgellons," a "disease" that has been sweeping through the Internet, picking up new sufferers as it goes. The article is remarkable in that it is not totally uncritical, and acknowledges that what is going on here is likely a mental disorder.

The Morgellons phenomenon is about 1-2 years old now. It's driven primarily by two wackos, one a "scientist" and one a mother.
It is basically a made up name that usually refers to delusions of parasitosis, and it is nearly impossible to treat---as would be expected it attracts a lot of quackery.

Morgellon's sounds like it would be too easy to investigate to go unrecognized.

There are syndromes that are difficult to pin down, but something with actual physical manifestations visible to the naked eye -- how is it possible that would be missed? Really doubtful.

Still, I wouldn't mind marketing a placebo cure on the internet to pay the bills.

Morgellon's sounds like it would be too easy to investigate to go unrecognized.

Unless everyone thought it would be too easy to investigate, and thus assumed someone else had done so.

I expect this to be either a form of delusion, or possibly a variety of unrelated conditions that produce itching and that have spawned a mythology around them... but the systematic study of the condition ought to be quite illuminating no matter what is found.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 20 Jan 2008 #permalink

I ran across the Morgellons phenomenon at least two years ago, and considered blogging it (not as a scientist, but as someone into documenting weirdness). But as I was researching the post, I concluded that the whole thing was deeply, deeply exploitive, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

Re. momento mori, there was a case here in Cincinnati a few years back where they discovered an art photographer had made his way into a local morgue to shoot composed photographs with the bodies. Yes, there was the unauthorized entry issue, and the failure to get releases from the families, but legally, those are both misdemeanors. The community freaked out. I could see the squick factor, but the level of outrage people expressed was completely disproportionate. The prosecutor, IIRC, tried to charge him with gross abuse of a corpse, but they couldn't convince the judge that placing a piece of sheet music and a rose on a dead body constituted gross abuse. They seemed most disturbed by the fact that he tried to make the photos artful. Had he been a necrophiliac who'd gone in with a polaroid to take snapshots, I think people would have been more forgiving. This is a city that can be deeply antagonistic to non-normative art.* He had to leave town. I'm surprised he wasn't lynched.

* I should add the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center is a really cool place, and they don't shy away from controversy. On the other hand, they've faced down more than their share of moralizing prosecutors.

I'd say if you sneak into a morgue to use people's dead relatives as props, without permission, for a commercial enterprise (whether you call it art or not), you can't really be surprised if there's a vehemently negative reaction. It's an action which will read to most people as deliberately insulting and exploitative, and calculated to hurt people where they are most vulnerable- directly after someone important to them has died. Necrophilia is more likely to read as compulsive and diseased, for which most people have a greater measure of understanding or pity.

Judging from your account the legal system worked well in his case, and has no brief to protect him from the negative results of his actions upon his own reputation and standing in the community, providing no vigilante actions took place. Put another way, it's amazing how antagonistic non-normative art can be to other people's feelings and rights. The obvious difference between these memento mori and your case is- these were done with permission and probably at request, which matters.

Photographer Andres Serrano did something similar, taking a series of photos titled "The Morgue" (some examples -- warning: some photos show recognizable features and/or decomposition; they may be disturbing). He took the photos in New York and had permission, so he's not the artist previously referred-to.

This reminds me of Rick Santorum and family taking their prematurely born son (20 weeks' gestation) home postmortem and taking photos, singing, etc.. (No, really: "Father First, Senator Second", Washington Post, 18 April 2005.)

Actually, this story humanizes Santorum in a way that I would never have anticipated and in a way to which I can relate.

I'm surprised nobody mentioned the beautiful movie "The Others" (in which this kind of pictures play a key role), so I'm glad I can be the first to do it.

By Christophe Thill (not verified) on 21 Jan 2008 #permalink

Anyone using a CD or Hard Drive can anticipate a relatively brief memorial. Personally I like the animated video tombstones shown at the end of the movie "Serenity".

As a clinical geneticist, sometimes photos like these are the only way to see if a deceased infant may have had a genetic syndrome. Our midwifery team regularly take photos of little babies who haven't made it, and the families often find these very helpful.

By Amenhotep (not verified) on 21 Jan 2008 #permalink

I think it's sort of sweet. Except possibly for making the siblings play along. That's weird, and seems like it could be a very disturbing experience for a child to endure. Although I imagine if it's less a cultural taboo and the person has not been deceased long it might not be so bad.

But the picture of the child on, is that a riverbank? is a very touching and artistic memorial.

I've seen a patient wih Morgellons, although I didn't know what to call it at the time. It was an elderly woman who insisted she was infested with parasites and brought in little baggies filled with skin scrapings which showed lots of epithelial cells and--fibers. She saw me and several of my colleagues, who also could find nothing wrong besides her delusion.

I'm a pathology resident at a Midwestern hospital. Our OB practice offers memorial photographs of deceased infants/fetuses to grieving parents. We have an on-staff professional photographer who takes them. I think it's kind of nice.

Also, never heard of Morgellon's before. Sounds like a classic somatic delusion to me. Sounds a little bit like Koro to me, but kind of in reverse.

By tintenfisch (not verified) on 21 Jan 2008 #permalink

I think the anti-vax folks should take a good look at those dead babies and children and remember how far we've come.

The morgue photographer in Cincy didn't just have to 'leave town'... he got sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.

By Jason, Cincinnati (not verified) on 22 Jan 2008 #permalink

It was most often done of babies simpley because so many of them died before their pictures could be taken. Photography was expensive, time-consuming, and difficult and most people didnt' do it often. So people would be photographed after death if there was no recent picture (or no picture at all) existing of them.

The first photo is just an art photo depicting baby Mosses floating down the Nile river in a raft of reeds. You know that old Bible story. This baby isn't dead at all.

i am really sad about them and even later in victorian times poor people were to charity schools for free they were called Dame Schools and if someone begged they would go to prison most of the people did it because they didn't want to die on street