28 October 2010

Pictures of the Dead:

In olden days, when the child of wealthy parents died, the family paid to have a portrait painted including the deceased. The recently departed was depicted as alive, though might be staring off into the distance while the rest of the family faced forward. Other signs of a mourning painting are a child holding dead flowers, or dead flowers in a vase near the sitter.

 The middle classes typically remembered their deceased with "hair art," which could be a wreath made from the hair of their loved one, or a piece of jewelry created from hair.

Photography was invented in Paris, though there is some argument about that (the first photograph was taken in 1827 and took 8 hours to develop).  While having one's picture taken was costly, it was not nearly so prohibitively priced as having a portrait painted.  As one might imagine, being able to keep an actual image of the family member appealed to mourners greatly, so when photography became affordable and popular, Victorians had pictures taken of family members after they died. As with the earlier paintings, the mourning photographs intended to depict a "living" person.

Most of the time, the deceased was "asleep."


Sometimes the deceased was propped up along side living family.




I should point out that it is the young girl above who is being propped.



Taken 9 DAYS after she died.

There are some people today who feel that this old practice is "creepy" or overly morbid, and are glad that we now properly respect the dead. These people forget that not everyone had a camera back then, and mortality was much higher. That postmortem picture is all that the parents have left of their little boy or girl. Think about it - there's no other way to remember what the laughing child looked like before the sickness or accident. Parents don't want to just bury their baby and forget, so they have a picture taken as if their child was napping.




Today's occidental society is far removed from death.  Aging, Sickness and Death no longer take place among family in one's home.  Today we hide them away in nursing homes and hospitals.
In a time period when Death walked more frequently among us, such images weren't foreign and disturbing.  The were loving reminders of those who passed too soon.

6 comments:

  1. The first time I saw pictures like these, I was creeped out. It was ghoulish, bordering on necrophelia.

    But the reasons you give are good; they were often impoverished (there was no middle class) and with a life expectancy in the late-nineteenth century of about 50, life was truly short.

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  2. You do a wonderful job of explaining likely motives leading to the post-mortem photography of loved ones. Most of us in the developed world are spoiled by a deluge of cheap images these days, and take them for granted. We're also culturally removed from death; we struggle through surgery to live up to impossibly youthful images. It will be interesting to see what impact an aging population has on these attitudes.

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  3. Mark - regarding "we're also culturally removed from death," my father says the exact same thing. We put the elderly away into nursing homes/retirement centers so we don't have to deal with aging or sickness, we avoid saying "dead;" instead we say "in a better place" etc. Even when a person is suffering from a terminal illness, family members nearly always want to try new/more treatments to prolong the inevitable. Death is no longer commonplace, which has made us all uncomfortable.

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  4. My first thought is that it's creepy...but then I started thinking more about how much the picture I have of my mother, taken about 6 months before she died, means to me. The reason it came off creepy was that we had a rather bad experience with an attempt at open casket. My mother starved to death from complications of terminal cancer (you'd think this doesn't happen, but sometimes you just can't fix a body that's broken, even with IVs) and she'd lost all her body fat. They tried to make her look a bit better, but it was all grotesque. I can't look at the few pics that were taken of her in the couple months before she died either.

    But I'm incredibly grateful I have a recent and good photo of her. And honestly, these photos may have been weird to take but they look pretty good.

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  5. This is truly disturbing. Are you a necrophiliac or something?? This may have been common in the past, however there is no need for it today. This has psychologically scarred me for life!!!

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  6. Oh grow up you big baby!!!!! you don't even have the nerve to assign your name to you blunt comment!!!!!! If you don't like them then don't look at them! These are people who more than likely never had a pick of there loved one and like they said it is to remember the loved one not the death they endured!!!!!

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