Death photos


Ben Lemmon

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Oct 9, 2009
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In the spirit of Halloween and All Saints Day, I thought I might post a thread related to the topic. I was watching The Others a while ago, and in it, they reference to the topic of death photos as an old custom. Did this custom actually ever take place, and had it stopped by the Edwardian Era? Thanks again for any information.
 
May 27, 2007
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Somebody posted a link to a site that showed actual Victorian photo's of the dead. The practice had stopped mostly but not completely
by Edwardian times. Maybe that was on ATZ site? More common in the America then in Britain. Gives me the heebie-jeebies. Especially the pictures of the children. One Photo had a deceased Child ready for a funeral and the said child's living siblings right next to the deceased child.

I remember the scene in "The Others" where Nicole Kidman's character finds the Photo Album.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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I've seen some of these photos. Apparently, it was quite common at the time, especially with infant children. Sleeping Angels they were called and often as not, the only real momento a family ever had that one of them had even lived.
 

Ben Lemmon

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I see it was also called post-mortem photography. Whatever one you feel like using, I guess.

Those photos were alarming, especially the one with the child looking out the window. That will haunt my dreams most likely.

Does anyone know if this tradition would have persisted into 1912, or was it a Victorian Era only occurrence? I found a Wikipedia article on this topic, but it was very ambiguous and esoteric. Can anyone shed light onto this subject?
 
May 27, 2007
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I think in certain families the practice of photographing the dead might of continued on to about 1912 or later but I think it generally died out when the 19th century turned to the 20th or maybe a bit earlier.
 

Ben Lemmon

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The Wikipedia article I referenced earlier says that the practice "peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century and died out as 'snapshot' photography became more commonplace." Only after I looked at the adjoining article about snapshot photography did I learn that it began with the brownie box camera in 1900. It was "introduced to the public on a grand scale" by Eastman Kodak, inventors of the aforementioned Brownie box, and whose treasurer was George Eastman, whose namesake still lives on in the Kodak name. He invited consumers to share in "Kodak moments," which, obviously, is where the cliche comes from.

It seems that the original Brownie box was priced at only $1, in order to mass market it. So if it was invented in 1900 and priced so inexpensively, then one could assume that the tradition of Mememto Mori ended quickly after the turn of the century, as it is stated that the practice dwindled rather quickly after the turn of the century.
 
May 27, 2007
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Hi Ben,

My family were nuts about their brownie. The first photo's we have from 1913 on my Mom's side were "Snapshots" of family by my G-Great Grandfather and life on the farm in South Dakota.

Hi Jason,
Quite a vivid photo gallery.
Quite vivid indeed
 

Ben Lemmon

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Quite vivid indeed
Though not quite as vivid as the gallery Geo graced us with.

Hey Geo,
How interesting were those pictures? More specifically, what part of farm life did they cover?

I wonder if the practice lingered on in Europe after it had died out in America. I should try and find a book detailing post-mortem photography.
 
May 27, 2007
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Hey Geo,
How interesting were those pictures? More specifically, what part of farm life did they cover?
Just about everything from G-Grandma feeding the chickens to photos of the Family Cat Swanee looking all proud like a general with his chest puffed out on the roof. The problem is that most of them are faded and wrapped in plastic because of fading.

I wonder if the practice lingered on in Europe after it had died out in America.
I think it lasted quite a while longer in catholic countries like Italy and Mexico. I think it faded after a while in America. I think the practice was kept alive in certain families. I think after about 1900 the general practice of photographing the dead had fallen out of use.
 

Ben Lemmon

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I wonder if anyone on the Titanic had taken a death photo with anyone they knew who had passed on. Interesting food for thought. I found a book on the subject of Post-mortem photography called Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. I also requested Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement in Memorial Photography American and European Traditions from another library. We'll see how long it takes to get to me. I'll let you know my thoughts on the subject as soon as I look over Secure the Shadow.

I did find out an interesting tidbit of information. If you were a farmer, making only a few dollars a month, one would have to save for months to simply purchase the post-mortem photo. Given the higher mortality rate of the Victorian Era, I would guess that money would be saved given the possibility of death, especially in the poorer farming families. That sounds like a depressing reason to save your money, but if it was the only photo you had of a child, then …

Let me pose a question. Take away the modern convenience of digital cameras and the related paraphernalia. Take away the old Brownie box camera as well. If post-mortem photography was the only way to remember your young child, would you take a picture of your dead child, or would you find it too much of a cultural taboo to participate in this practice?
 
Jan 28, 2003
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When photography was in its infancy, I expect a picture of your dead child did seem a way to preserve it in your memory - false, probably, but understandable, if you could struggle to afford it in the wake of such a tragedy. But when photography became widespread, it probably became an unacceptable idea, perhaps because it's real social role became to memorialise the living. Of course, everyone snapped eventually dies, but nobody now wants to see pictures of them dead.

In Europe, but more in other parts of the world, possibly more religious, graves sometimes bear the photos of the dead ... but, I think, only now when they were alive.

It doesn't seem to me to be a 1912 sort of preoccupation, because photography then was well established as a way of celebrating life, thank goodness.
 

Eric Longo

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Aug 13, 2004
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Hi All,

In my searches for unpublished photographs of the Mauretania and from the New York World's Fair of 1939 I have run across post mortem photographs of children and adults from as late as 1940.

Best,
Eric
 

Ben Lemmon

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Thanks for the information, Eric

I was just perusing the Wikipedia article, and I found a link to a current website. Evidently, post-mortem photography is alive and well, just not to the extent it might have been in the Victorian Era. They decide to keep it in the traditional black-and-white color scheme. The website is here. It is now called Infant Bereavement photography. It sounds like a fitting name, and it cleverly steps around the taboo words of Memento Mori or Post-mortem photography.
 
May 27, 2007
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I think Monica had something on memories. Some of those Memento Mori or Mort photos of children were the only records of their short lives so naturally or unnaturally to us the bereaved Victorians would on the other hand take photographs to mark the occasion. Along with Memento Mori Photo's of the adults.

We most remember that death was quite a different thing to Victorians then it is to us what with how they looked at religion and certain aspects of their lives.

To us a Photo of a dead child with it's living siblings or a woman dead in Child Bed with her dead infant is disturbing but to the Victorians the Memento Mori or Mort Photo's were the marking or beginning photo's of their loved ones ascension to Heaven which was a profound event to them, The Victorians and the photo's were a reminder of the loved one before they met again.
 

Kyrila Scully

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My great-grandfather, George Henry Hunt (not the man of the same name who perished on Titanic) drowned in the 40's when my mother was a child. There was a photograph taken of him in his casket with family members standing around. So the practice did not end in the Edwardian era--just not as prevalent. There are probably still people who photograph loved ones in death.
 

Chad Goodwin

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Aug 2, 2006
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On my Fathers side of the family they were still taking DEATH PHOTOS until the mid 60s........kind of a shock as a teen going through a box of old pics....only to come face to face with dead relatives
 
May 27, 2007
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I figured that the practice might of survived in some families. I've found out that some funeral homes take pictures of customers lying in state for their records.
 

Ben Lemmon

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As mentioned above, there is a non-profit society taking Bereavement photos of infants who die near birth. It still happens but simply isn't as prevalent, as Kyrila said. There are also pictures from 1939 and other more recent years. What started in the Victorian era sparked a fire, the embers of which still glow today. The book I borrowed from the library today mentions that the practice started by at least 1840, perhaps earlier.

There is also a quick poem that I found concerning Post-mortem photography:

Secure the Shadow, Ere the Substance Fade,
Let Nature imitate what Nature Made


This poem was one of photography's earliest cliches, and some of you know how much I love cliches
wink.gif
. It obviously predates George Eastman's (of Eastman Kodak) cliche of "you push the button, we do the rest."

The aforementioned book comments on the current status of Post-mortem photography. It "is a photographic activity, like the erotica produced in middle-class homes by married couples, that many privately practice but seldom circulate outside the trusted circle of close friends and relatives." It also says "[Though it is] sometimes thought to be an bizarre Victorian custom, photographing corpses has been and continues to be an important, if not common occurrence in American life."

As a result, our previous postulates of its near extinction were not as correct as we might have thought. Though we might find it a proscribed subject, some people continue to do it now, in the 21st century.

Who would have thunk that while watching The Others? Anyway, I suggest looking at the linked site above. It shows some pretty current photos that are just as haunting as the ones from the Victorian Era.

Also, does the old photographic cliche sound like an incantation to anyone else besides me?
 

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