One of my many morbid little interests in life is how we as humans have treated death throughout history, especially during the Victorian era between the years 1837, when Queen Victoria took the throne in England until her death in 1901. The Victorians held some pretty strict practices when it came to the final chapter of someone's life. Some historians have even called it the "cult of Death," and the "celebration of death." It would be their strange practices that would lead me to a search for "dead people photos" and will be the topic of future posts on this blog.
While visiting friends in Pennsylvania, we spent time perusing the local antique stores and every time I saw a box of old pictures, I started going through them in the hopes of discovering that most curious and morbid practice of the Victorian's: the mourning photo. As I rummaged through picture after picture of people long dead and gone, they all looked very much alive in the photos I was looking at. I like going through antique stores when I visit the eastern U.S. because there seems to be older, more interesting stuff than in my Midwest part of the woods. All of my friends are pretty much of the same mind, so they weren't surprised as to what I was looking for. It was also one of those items you really didn't know how to ask any shop owner about for that matter.
"Um...excuse me? I'm trying to find photos of dead people. Do you have any?"
They would either know what you were talking about if they were savvy or you would have to sit and explain yourself for the next twenty minutes as to the historical significance of these cultural bygones so as not to appear too creepy and then blame the desire to purchase such photo on an imaginary, "eccentric" friend that collects these sorts of things.
I never did find one during that trip and they can be quite collectible and pricey when you find a "good one," usually a pretty lady who looks like she's asleep or an angelic looking child laying on a bed, surrounded by flowers. There's always a market and interest for the strange and macabre. I mean, afterall, you are visiting the blog of Michigan's Otherside so there's a little macabre in you as well!
I eventually got a good price on a dead baby post-mortem photo. It really just looks like a sleeping baby in a crib with an unhealthy skin tone. It's now a conversation starter around the house when people come over. "Would you like to see my dead baby photo?"
So what exactly are these photos all about?
Victorian Postmortem Photography 101:Your family member dies. You figure out how to "artfully" display them for a photo to keep and hang on your living room wall for all to admire every...single... day. Here are a few examples of typical mourning photography.
I found this photo really interesting given the way they propped the little girl up on a stool and made it look as if the photo shoot took a little too long and she just fell asleep on mom's lap.
The below photo is a little different as the family is around their dead dog, rather than a human. The lady on the chair just looks angry. Perhaps she didn't like the dog.
Dad:: "OK kids, stand around your baby brother and hold still, and Sally, try to smile just a little bit for the camera."
The little boy almost looks as if he's reaching for a new toy and as little kids emotions are pretty transparent, the little girl doesn't look all that thrilled. Rather she looks grossed out and I don't blame her. It's not the ideal family portrait a couple kids want to partake in on a warm, summer's day.
Knowing that this child is actually dead with that look on its face really makes this photo rather terrifying. (Note: arms and legs would be moved to make the body look more natural during these photos and eyes would be opened or if need be, glued open, for the sake of the photo. If the body just wouldn't cooperate, then eyes could be painted onto the photo itself and even a rosy "glow" could be added onto the cheeks.)
Postmortem photography was a way to remember your loved ones by. To us, it seems creepy and at times, morbidly funny, but during a time when mortality rates were higher and families weren't able to get photos taken for every special occasion in their life like we do today, a postmortem picture may have been your only memento of that person. The rest was committed to memory. These days, you can't help but laugh at some of these photos because we can't even fathom practicing this today. If old great Aunt Betty dies, we don't have to prop her up and take a photo. We've taken photo's of her for years at every family gathering. And better yet, we don't have to put her corpse in our living room for a "viewing" as the funeral parlors take care of that job now. When it comes to the physical task of handling death, we have it a lot better these days.