Friday, January 13, 2012

"I see dead people": Victorian post-mortem photography

There's a slightly macabre story about the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, a man so dissipated he expired from chronic alcoholism in his late 30s. (His last words purportedly were, "I've had eighteen straight whiskeys. I think that's the record.") Lionized in America, he found the seductions of the White Horse pub a little too much for him and keeled over with a brain hemorrhage. His widow Caitlin recalls that when his body was being shipped back to Wales for burial, some of the deckhands noticed his coffin and sat down around it to play a spirited game of poker.

"How Dylan would have loved that!" she exclaimed.


The coffin in the picture above doesn't contain Dylan Thomas.  More likely the photo depicts one of those Irish wakes where they like to prop up the body with a drink in its hand and carouse all night long.  It does not really qualify as post-mortem photography except in the broadest sense: the subject is someone who is being memorialized in a permanent and significant way.

Before we look at any more of these, let's quote the Great and Powerful Wikipedia:

Post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture or memento mori) is the practice of photographing the recently deceased.

The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 made portraiture much more commonplace, as many of those who were unable to afford the commission of a painted portrait could afford to sit for a photography session. This cheaper and quicker method also provided the middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones.

These photographs served less as a reminder of mortality than as a keepsake to remember the deceased. This was especially common with infants and young children; Victorian era childhood mortality rates were extremely high, and a post-mortem photograph might have been the only image of the child the family ever had. The later invention of the carte de visite, which allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative, meant that copies of the image could be mailed to relatives.

The practice eventually peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century and died out as "snapshot" photography became more commonplace, although a few examples of formal memorial portraits were still being produced well into the 20th century.

The earliest post-mortem photographs are usually close-ups of the face or shots of the full body and rarely include the coffin. The subject is usually depicted so as to seem in a deep sleep, or else arranged to appear more lifelike. Children were often shown in repose on a couch or in a crib, sometimes posed with a favorite toy or other plaything. It was not uncommon to photograph very young children with a family member, most frequently the mother. Adults were more commonly posed in chairs or even braced on specially-designed frames. Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types.

The effect of life was sometimes enhanced by either propping the subject's eyes open or painting pupils onto the photographic print, and many early images (especially tintypes and ambrotypes) have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse.

Later examples show less effort at a lifelike appearance, and often show the subject in a coffin. Some very late examples show the deceased in a coffin with a large group of funeral attendees; this type of photograph was especially popular in Europe and less common in the United States.

I knew nothing of this practice, one which seems so macabre by today's standards, until I stumbled upon it while searching for something else on YouTube. A lot of the videos contained severe warnings about content (so of course I had to look).

And it's true that on the surface of it, the images seem creepy and provoke a visceral response. We're not used to seeing dead people, except perhaps at open-casket funerals. Not used to seeing them arranged like furniture or braced so they could stand up beside their living kin.

But some sites devoted to this strange practice claim (correctly, I think) that post-mortem photography reflects a fascinating and very significant cultural shift in attitudes toward mortality. Death was much closer then, and less sanitized; people died in their beds, were washed and dressed and prepared for burial by loved ones. The camera was magic in those days, a way to paint an instant portrait, but not to be used lightly due to scarcity and cost (i.e. no one owned a camera then; you went to a portrait studio in your best clothing, stood very still, and didn't smile).

The babies are the saddest, of course. Victorian women must have gone through agony in their childbearing years, with primitive or non-existent obstetrics, high mortality rates and a complete absence of birth control. Almost everyone would lose an infant, more likely several. Were people more hardened to loss back then? I doubt it. They had to put their grief somewhere, just as we have to today.

They needed something to hold on to, a memento.  Because there were no Kodak moments then, no digital cameras or cells or any of the gadgets with which we so casually snap a picture, there would be no record of Junior's first smile or first steps or first day of school.

The post-mortem photograph, the only existing image of a baby or a child or even an adult, would be cherished and preserved for generations (as witness the thousands of images I found on the internet). I can feel the melancholy behind this gesture, the aching grief in the attempt to make a dead infant appear "lifelike". 

These waxen dolls are disturbing, but only if seen through our modern abhorrence of anything to do with death. We die in hospitals now, often alone. Life is prolonged past the point of any real meaning: we do it because we can, which has come to mean that we're supposed to, that there's no other choice. Death is the enemy, to be beaten back as long and fiercely as possible.

People "fight" cancer, "triumph" over it or "lose the battle". The medical community seems embarrassed by it all. Disease isn't supposed to happen, and if it does, it must be vanquished. I don't think the Victorians thought in terms of losing battles, or even winning. The majority of them were deeply Christian, which means they believed the dead were gathered up by the Almighty and transported to a better place for all eternity.

Spiritualism became tremendously popular in this era, along with the belief that the ghosts of loved ones sometimes appeared in photos.  And they did, if the photographer knew what he was doing.

The Victorians knew that life and death were separated not by a doorway or a passageway but by a gossamer veil, something the merest breeze could draw aside. These eerie portraits of life-in-death convey a sense of dwelling in that mysterious other world even while still embodied on earth. It's a bizarre and even repugnant concept to us, but not to them.

I try to imagine it. It's hard to go there, to put myself there. I wonder what it would be like to touch a dead baby, to tenderly position it for a portrait under blazing lights, to hold its likeness close for years and years while other children came and went.

Their haunted eyes seem to stare at us through time, through space, even through the mists of death itself.

BLOGGER'S NOTE. Many of these photos have been blogged and reblogged, pinned and repinned so many times that it was impossible for me to discover their true provenance, which fills me with regret. There was a time when these pictures were incalculably precious to someone and, in fact, irreplaceable. Try to see them in that light.