Death and Photography

PhotographsMemento mori — translated from Latin means “remember your mortality.” For many people, it can be difficult to accept this inevitability, or even keep the thought of it present as they drive through traffic, walk across a dark parking lot or have that serving of deep-fried heart attack at the county fair. However, some do wish to remember the mortality of loved ones, and want to keep a small token from death such as a lock of hair, a facial casting from wax or plaster or even a photograph.

With the invention of the first photographic image by Joseph Niepce in 1814, an entire new art form and a world of possibilities was begun. And when the first human image was made public, the world of portrait artists was changed forever. People no longer were required to sit for hours to have their portraits done, nor pay large sums of money. Anyone could have their image preserved for a small fee that took only a few minutes of posing. Naturally, the popularity of photographic portraiture grew on a large scale and the demand was high for skilled camera operators. As photographic technology advanced, so did the ease of transporting equipment to a wide variety of locations, one of which was the funeral home.

In the late 19th century, life expectancy for males was 42.5 years old. For women, it was only slightly higher at 44.5 — if they survived childbirth. The infant mortality rate was 48.3. These statistics point to a bleak expectation for children to grow into adulthood. And even if they did survive, life was still comparatively short by 21st century standards. As a consequence, there was an unfortunate amount of circumstance that gave cause for people to say goodbye their loved ones.

During the Victorian era, postmortem photographs were at the height of their popularity. They had become well-integrated into North American funeral rites. It became quite common for people to memorialize their loved ones by displaying their death images at home, or worn in lockets. Sometimes, copies of these images were made and sent to relatives as a way of including those who could not be present for funerals.

Often, the deceased were posed to appear lifelike, such as holding an object of some meaning to them, or even standing upright with the help of specially constructed frames. Occasionally, an elaborate set or background was constructed that might include flowers, chairs, pets and family members, who sometimes would pose with the deceased as if they were still alive, occasionally applying blush to their cheeks and opening their eyes. Some mourners went so far as to paint pupils on on the photograph if the eyes could not be kept open.

For some families, this custom of memorializing their loved ones provided an unfortunate opportunity to create the only photographs of the deceased. It appears that their motivation to pose the deceased was simply out of respect and to preserve some aspect of their personality.

Shortly after the end of the Edwardian Era, which lasted from 1901-1910, the practice of post-mortem photography hit its peak. Photographic technology had begun to take another leap and soon after, so-called snapshot photography became a more commonly used means of image making. Shortly thereafter, a sharp decline in the popularity of memento mori imagery took hold in popular funeral customs. However, that’s not to say that it has been entirely removed from practice.

Although greatly diminished, there still is a small demand in modern times for the skills of sensitive photographers. Some funeral homes do incorporate the practice of photographic memorials in their services at the families’ request. Perhaps this rite shows that there is still a need, even in the 21st century, to preserve the image of our loved ones, safekeeping for a failing memory.

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