Memento Mori: Victorian Photographs of the Dead

For anyone who has personally lost children, it’s hard to imagine taking a picture of the dead. Taking photographs at a funeral is one thing, as many times this is the only chance one will get to see relatives who live very far away.

We take our digital and technological era for granted. Everything is instantly gratifying and with this comes wastefulness and materialism.

In the Victorian era, there was little in the way of instant gratification and anything desired took months or years to labor for. In the early part of the 1800s, photography was just in it’s infancy. Memories could finally last forever (or so it seemed) outside one’s mind or imagination. However, despite this great technological breakthrough, infant mortality was still very high as the world of medicine and vaccines had not caught up yet.

What you see here is very mournful loved ones preserving the memories of those who fell victim to common diseases, many of which have now been all but eradicated thanks to modern medicine and vaccinations.

There was nothing odd or disgusting about this practice. In fact, it was practical and understandable when one considered the odds that were stacked against those who lived at this time in history. Most people then couldn’t afford modern funerals, so the dead had to be quickly buried, preventing family from far away from being able to arrive in a timely manner. There weren’t cars or planes to quickly move people around, remember.

Once only affordable to the very rich and elite, photography became less expensive and thus attainable for the middle classes towards the end of the 1800s. Note: this was just over a hundred years ago; now we have digital photos and YouTube.

The deceased person would be arranged in their natural setting. If they were a carpenter, they would be placed in a woodshed; if they were a priest (as seen above), in a church; a baby would be positioned in a nursery. The body would be posed along with other family members as if all was normal and well.

These pictures took a long time to develop or print and, of course, it wasn’t cheap. The first photographs appeared on tin, then later cardboard. The photos were easily damaged by the elements or finger smudges. There wasn’t useful, working knowledge of how to preserve these heirlooms.

Often such memento mori were the only picture of the person ever taken. Rarely were coffins shown in the pictures because the idea was to make the person look alive – only sleeping or lost in thought.

In fact, so desirable was it to make the person look as though they were living alive that, later on in history, the deceased person had their eyes propped open, or the picture was manipulated to make the deceased’s face look rosy.

Incredibly, they would often keep the body of an infant and, once it was mummified, they would dress the baby’s body and keep it as a memento. It was the equivalent of the modern day taxidermy of a treasured pet.

Victorian mummyPhoto: Shain Erin

The very wealthy – who didn’t have T.V.s or radios to entertain themselves, remember – would dress up in odd garb and pose in theatrical settings for entertainment. As suggested, photography in this era was still mainly used for keeping the deceased loved one’s memories alive.

Eventually, technology allowed for multiple copies of the same print to be enjoyed by relatives. This was close to the turn of the 20th century. Post-mortem photography is still practiced by Eastern Catholics, Oriental (Eastern) Christians, and many non-religious people in Eastern Europe.

Now, with the likes of the legendary Enrique Metinides, whose post-mortem photographs you can see here, the view of the dead is much more graphic and realistic. No longer are the faces of the dead rosy and the eyes propped open. No longer are the dead leaned up against flowers and made beautiful. This is perhaps because now photography is commonplace and no longer marveled at. Our society has felt the need to take photography to the next level and exploit the fragility of mankind.

“Memento mori” is Latin for “Remember you will die.” How can we forget this elementary concept with images like these? We all deal with death differently, based on our past experiences, our culture, our upbringing, and our faith. It is truly fascinating how each era in history reveals how humanity dealt with its own mortality. One wonders what future generations will think of the way we in the present day mourned our dead?

Thank you to all who permitted me to use these images in this article.