Postmortem remembrance…a photographic trend we might find a little strange today

Photo Courtesy of Alan Berning

Halloween, All Hallows’ Eve, Day of the Dead, Calan Gaeaf? Whether it be through ghouls and ghosts or honor and remembrance, this week’s festivities hold in store thoughts of that which we all have in common and will all someday face: Death!

I figure why not incorporate a bit of mortality into my blog as well! When someone passes on, the checklist of things to do are often the same for many: Notify the family, call a church or funeral home, call a florist, pick out a favorite outfit for the deceased, etc. However, what one would likely not find on the traditional checklist is: Notify a photographer.

While today’s postmortem photographs are often reserved for crime scenes, war, contemporary art, and aggressive paparazzo, the idea of photographing the dead, at one time, was not only acceptable, but commonplace.

First, one must imagine a time before Facebook, smart phones, disposable cameras, point-and-shoot cameras, Polaroid instants, color film, and black and white film. One must essentially image a time before people were tirelessly photographed from birth. For this, we must go back to the Victorian Era.

According to an article, “Post-mortem photography“, listed in the Wikipedia, in the first half of the 19th century, the common way to immortalize oneself, or one’s family, was through a commissioned painting. The downside was price and most were unable to afford it. However, when the daguerreotype (the first practicable photographic process) came along in 1839, the wheels were set in motion, which would, through development over the next several decades, allow even the less fortunate to obtain some kind of portraiture immortality.

Taking advantage of what all portraiture had to offer in the 19th century, it was not uncommon for even a deceased loved one to be pictorially honored through a commissioned painting following their death. And it is not a huge leap of faith to see how this practice easily transferred into the new medium of photography!

Unlike today, death was a much more acceptable part of life in the Victorian Era. High mortality rates for both young and old alike made death a frequent part of people’s lives. Allison Meier, a freelance contemporary visual arts writer, notes, in her article “Beyond the Creap Factor: Postmortem Photography as Remembrance“, death was not far from life. It would often come about unexpectedly and would remain in the home. In fact, at that time, with infant and child mortality rates so high, it was often the only way (and only chance) a family portrait or standalone portrait of the deceased child could take place! For these reasons, the idea of posing with the deceased for a photograph was not viewed as generally abhorred as it would be today.

Yahoo Voices Freelance Writer Rosana Modugno noted, in her article, “The Truth Behind Victorian Post-Mortem Photography“, the trend caught on and families from all walks of life were paying photographers for their services at their times of bereavement. However unlike a painting, where the details of death could easily be corrected, the less-forgiving photographic process was not so easy. For starters, the photographer would most of the time have to go to the family. Bodies had to be posed and, often, have eyes painted upon their closed eyelids for lifelike effect. And, while the practice did eventually extend to all walks of life, the cost was still often burdensome often due to the involved nature of the session.

Madugno said, for children, the pose was often them asleep in their bed while adults would often be posed doing what their did for a living. Often this required them in a standing pose, which brought about a kind of life-size doll stand for the body (see an example here, though not for the faint at heart).

At the end of this paragraph are links to a few sites where one may view some Victorian Era postmortem portraits. A prelude to these: Keep in mind these pictures were taken at a time when this was common practice. It was not intended to be intrusive, inappropriate, or an indulgence of one’s morbid curiosity through the invention of the camera. Now, a word of warning: Although these were acceptable within their own era, with today’s mindset on death and the general idea that the dead should not be photographed for keepsake purposes, bear in mind these portraits are not for the faint at heart. If you are still with me…here are the links:

1) Morbid gallery reveals how Victorians took photos of their dead relatives posing on couches, beds and even in coffins

2) 17 Haunting Post-Mortem Photographs From The 1800s

3) The Strangest Tradition of the Victorian Era: Post-Mortem Photography

4) 19th Century Photography Paul Frecker London

5) Youtube slideshow

Now, while you might be hard-pressed to find one desirous of this type of portrait session today, you might be surprised, as I was, to find this practice continues and, similar to the idea during the Victorian Era, the focus is often on the untimely death of infants. In researching for this blog, I came across a site called Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. It is a network of photographers who hold portrait sessions for parents who will soon, or have suffered, the loss of an infant. I will let their website and testimonials do the talking, however, I will note the striking similarity in the practice today and that more than 100 years ago and that is the sense of comfort this type of photography brings to grieving parents.

With that, Abanathy Photography, LLC bids all a happy and safe Halloween this week!

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