Jun 22, 2016 | by Ellen Dial
It’s inevitable – one of the few things we must do, along with paying our taxes. Death is a part of life, the end game, the final chapter.
How we accept it and deal with it is personal, yet at other times extremely public. Candles are lit. Vigils held. There are outpourings of grief. Speeches made. Social media lights up.
Not to get morbid or harp upon how, as a people, we handle this most solemn and heart-breaking of events, our attitudes and rituals have changed significantly over the years. We aren’t as “used” to it as our ancestors were. Medical science, nutrition and modern plumbing have all contributed to the healthier (in theory) lives we lead. People live much longer. No longer dying from a bout of bronchitis or a bad clam. Typhoid, Cholera, TB, pertussis and other serious maladies are all but gone, thanks to mass vaccination and vastly improved living conditions.
But what about before? Before all this improvement?
As I noted in an earlier piece, the life expectancy of the average Edwardian woman was a whopping 45 years! Strep throat or scarlet fever could kill you, who hasn’t had one or both? Mishandled waste created outbreaks of deadly disease. There was no chemotherapy, antibiotics or anti-viral medication, the former didn’t start to be a thing until the 30s and 40’s, the latter not until the 1960’s. Industrial accidents were common. No good way to treat asthma. Childbirth could be deadly. Homes were rife with poisons (lead, mercury and arsenic) and less than thoroughly tested technologies (mixing direct current electricity and dodgy gas lines, for example). The list is a long one.
Add to that, as many as 165 per 1000 of all children born before the 1910’s were lost before they reached their first birthday. Malnutrition, illness and poor bottle hygiene were the big culprits. We just don’t see that today in first world countries, thank goodness.
Scary, yes? Are we lucky? Yes.
With all that gloom and doom said, how did Aunt Carrie and Great Grandma Clemmie view death – how did they honor friends and family who had shed their mortal coil?
Let’s just take a look at one way, one tradition from the past, shall we?
Vintage Post-Mortem | Memento Mori
Definition: Memento Mori-Remember you have to die.
Those wacky Victorians really got the ball rolling, taking this tradition to a level as only they could. Mourning was a huge thing. Family members, as well as intimate friends, wore all black all the time for at least a year after. Mirrors were covered. Curtains drawn. No/little socializing. Whole treatises written on the proper turn of events in regards to mourning, more on that here . It was a spectacle, to be sure. If you married the widower in question? You wore black for your wedding and for the appropriate time frame after, regardless of your prior relationship to the deceased. It was a major faux pas to break with the cycle. Whole separate wardrobes were created and kept in storage to be trotted out when needed – or for the less affluent, clothing was just dyed black in haste.. These rules even applied to the passing of public figures. Black arm bands were many times worn for extended amounts of time after the official mourning period ceased. Queen Victoria observed mourning for her beloved Albert until her own death, several decades later. Jewelry, picture frames and other artistic memorial items were made from the hair of the deceased. Yes, hair. Hair. Death masks of the famous, infamous and uber-wealthy were created, providing a visual remembrance of the deceased.
They were serious, dead serious, as it were. As vintage mavens, we know the Victorians did so love their rules and structure. What else? They also fed their fascination with the new technology of photography.
Vintage Post-Mortem |Take a Picture!
Now, back in the way back, getting your picture taken was a big, big deal – one donned one’s snazziest duds, bejeweled oneself, and a lot of planning went into poses, etc.. Photographs could be expensive AND people frequently didn’t live long enough to have a portrait made.
They made photographic memorials of the dead. Either individually, or with the whole family. Very cozy. This all seems very weird and creepy to our modern sensibilities.. In the here and now, we have many photos of friends and family members, maybe even videos. We save voicemail messages, texts and emails. All manner of ways to keep those who pass alive in our hearts and minds. I mean, we loved our deceased friend very much, we miss them – but would you want your picture taken with them, after they’re, well, dead?
Some of these pictures are quite beautiful, haunting and heart-breaking. Most especially the babies and the very young. The sense of loss is quite evident. I’ve included some especially fine examples for you peruse. Some others? Not so much, it’s pretty obvious the subject is no longer of this Earth, in fact, one example I found; apparently the grieving family had to wait some time for the photographer to get to them, that’s all I’m going to say about that horror. Others are just odd, especially when the photographer painted eyes on the eye lids of the deceased, with the intent of making them look alive. They just look scared, or perhaps very surprised. Who wouldn’t be?
How did they create the poses? Family members would hold up their loved ones, photographers also had a variety of props that could be used. The same ones were used for both the living and the dead… I know, right? It’s commonly thought that Brady stands were used to support the subjects of post-mortem photography, but we now realize this wasn’t 100% accurate. Why use props at all? For the living, early photography had very long exposure times, upwards of five minutes and one had to stay perfectly still. Which is why early photographs look very stiff and the subjects rarely smiled. For the deceased? Well, just think about it. No issue with that exposure time, though. Just sayin’.
This tradition was also used to sensationalize the death of the infamous, think Jesse James and John Dillinger. Post-mortem photos were taken of hoodlums, to prove they were gone. The public ate it up! These photos were featured on the front pages of newspapers, along with lurid accounts of their deaths.
A famous civil war photographer, Timothy O’Sullivan, used photography to bring the horrors of the battle field to the general public. We’ve all seen the images from Gettysburg, very stark and brutal.
The practice of memento mori thrived through the early 1900’s and began to fade out in the 20’s and 30’s. One can see some examples up to and including present day. These later examples are much more straight forward.
What brought about this decline? Photography became much more affordable, people had Brownie cameras and later, 35mm and Polaroid cameras – they could take candid photos of friends and loved ones at will. It became commonplace to have numerous pictures of those we care about. Also, medical science marched forward – making infant mortality much less of an issue and people stayed healthier and lived longer.
As I’ve mentioned, now in the 21st century we have so many ways to keep our memories alive. Who knows what the future holds. What with holographic and virtual reality technologies? Will we be able to almost create an alternate universe, one in which we can interact with those we’ve lost forever?
Is this a good thing?
The writer would like to thank: Wikipedia.com, pbs.org, history.org, photojojo.com, vv.arts.ucla.edu, listverse.com, mentalfloss.com, paulfecker.com and theghostdairies.com. Additionally, “Hidden Dangers in the Victorian Home”, “Hidden Dangers in the Edwardian Home”, the recent BBC series available on Amazon Prime.
To our dear readers: What are your thoughts regarding memento mori/post mortem photography? Are there any examples in your vintage family photo albums ?