I’ve tried to have a deeper look and I admit I gave it more thoughts than exploration, because this Victorian box is a hard one to open. One picture, two pictures… and it seems it is more than enough. Or is it? We all have a dark side, haven’t we? One more picture. And another. Then the finger stops scrolling.
There is something fascinating and repulsive in these old vintage feelings. Photographing dead relatives was a habit from days gone by and it may never return. It may sound reassuring but the discomfort lingers. That’s why I chose not to display post mortem photography on this post but provide links at the end of it because I understand it may be an unpleasant view for the sensitive or the unprepared. In our day and age, this activity would seem creepy, morbid, weird.
So, the number one question is: why? Why did they do it? Were they so different from us?
The Early Days Of Photography
Queen Victoria accessed to the throne in 1837 while the photographic process was being worked on and improved, until 1839 when portraits were taken for the first time. The Victorian era is also the era of the early days of photography. Queen Victoria was photographed several times, alone or with her family, which makes her the first monarch to be documented with such accuracy and likeness.
And that’s what photography was for at the beginning, a process that would render a perfect likeness to what was represented.
A new middle class emerged during the 19th century due to the Industrial Revolution and photography became more and more popular. But it was expensive and families didn’t have a camera at home. Photographers were technicians and chemists and you had to hire one of them when you wanted to be photographed. Needless to say, most people couldn’t afford it. So, if you had never been photographed during your lifetime, the day you died was the day, or never.
It took several seconds to take a photograph in those times, and you were required to stay still. Maybe that’s why they seldom smiled. What’s striking is that the dead person seems more alive than his/her relatives in some pictures, because of the long exposure time, the living blurred and the dead sharper and more present. So maybe they thought that being dead was the best time to be photographed and recorded in a family book, though it may seem such a strange idea for us.
Death And The Victorians
Recorded… yes that’s the idea. The Victorian era is also the era of the dawn of many scientific fields, when interests were raised to the status of science: history as objective as possible with new archaeological findings, the new craze for the Egyptian mummies, the deciphering of the Rosetta stone, anthropology and natural science with the publication of The Origin of Species by Darwin in 1859 for example, and other subjects in which you had to record, label and classify.
Post mortem photography became more and more widespread in a society at the crossroads between puritan culture and the new sciences. An interesting mixture between two ingredients that were thought to be incompatible. Maybe they pictured their dead relatives in the state of mind of this period, as a memory, a keepsake, a homage, the way we display remnants of life gone away in cabinets of curiosity, and they made special portfolios for it, the Book of the Dead of the family.
That’s true that the death rate was still high in those days. Death was everywhere to be feared. There was a higher death rate, especially among children and infants, and it was a common thing to die in your prime. The death of a child is one of the biggest fear for parents, but in those days, most families experienced it at least once. And those of you who have already made genealogical research know it better than anybody else. They also kept their dead at home until the funeral. There was a great imagery around mourning, with many symbols and customs. And one of the most famous mourners was Queen Victoria herself.
Her husband, Albert, died in 1861, and for the following 40 years until her own death, Victoria was the black queen, the queen in mourning. So, I don’t think any more they had such a strange habit photographing their dead relatives, because people lived with death, it was a tragedy to be expected, it was a part of their life.
This is also the century when new kinds of literature emerged or prospered, the gothic novel who began between 1760s and 1820s, the romantic revival until 1830s, Edgar Allan Poe around 1850, the first English detective story The Moonstone in 1868 etc. This is a period marked by Dracula and Jack the Ripper. Maybe there is a cause and effect reason for it, maybe they tried to master death by writing and reading about it in a new way, in a way where a real cause could be identified, a murderer, a predator, something or someone you could lay the blame on. Photography was also used for the first time by the police and in forensics, post mortem photographs started to be used as a tool to solve mysteries, and the Jack the Ripper case is a famous example.
What About Us?
We no longer feel death lurking as they did before. People still experience tragedy in their life of course, but the permanency of death has ended for people living in our kind of cultures. We have specialists that take care of dead bodies, we seldom keep the dead at home, and most of the time we think of death as an extraordinary event that shouldn’t be. Nevertheless, we are still fascinated by it, we still watch horror movies, thrillers, detective series and we kill people on video games. But they are anonymous dead, people invented or people far and away like those we hear about in the news. That’s why post mortem photography looks so weird for us because they were about people you did know while they were alive.
Though this is an unwelcomed relic from our ancestors, a creepy testimony for the generations ahead, no other period in history has shown such an interest about death and mourning than the Victorian era, and it still inspires some subsets of the gothic culture, tv dramas, and movies.
Look at these pictures, look at these dead people pretending to be alive and let them whisper to your ear ‘remember that you will die… too’.
So many questions arise that, first and foremost, it may tell us more about ourselves and our own response than about them. Is everything worth shooting? Should we draw a limit and decide what NOT to show? Would you hire a funeral photographer if there was such a thing?