Victorian post-mortem photography

Via a fascinating blog that was pointed out to me (Morbid Anatomy), I came across a story from last winter about how a Colorado nonprofit organization is reviving a Victorian custom about which I had been largely ignorant, namely the custom of taking photographs of recently deceased loved ones as mementos. Indeed, the photographs were known as “memento mori.” The group, called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, takes carefully posed photographs that are truly astonishing. Although the concept may sound morbid, the results are not (although I really, really wish the website would get rid of the sappy music; it detracts from the power of the images rather than enhancing it). Although before I might actually have thought it rather morbid to record such images, now I”m not so sure.

After perusing the images above, for instance, you could take a look at some of the Victorian-era memento mori images. What struck me the most about these images were two things. First, they were mostly children. Whether this is due to a greater tendency of parents to want to memorialize a child who died or whether it was due to the appalling infant mortality rate 150 years ago, I don’t know, although my guess would be both, but with a greater contribution from the latter. The second thing that caught my attention was how elaborately posed some of these photos were. For example:


These photos were often displayed along with other family photos. Indeed, some of them were taken just like any other family photo:


The tradition, apparently, even extended to the family pet.

In our present, death-fearing and death-denying society, I doubt that memento mori will ever become as popular as it was in Victorian times and even well into the 20th century, and I really doubt that it will ever return to the point where many families would display such photos prominently. Given the universal need for humans to remember loved ones who have died, however, it’s a custom that will probably never go away, even if the photos are kept in albums or, as is becoming more and more common these days, on a CD or computer hard drive. As Kristan Tetans put it:

The origins of memento mori photographs can be traced back nearly to the beginning of photography itself. During the nineteenth century, post-mortem portraits were used to acknowledge and mourn the death of a loved one, especially a baby or child. All social classes engaged in the practice, which became more widespread after the introduction of the daguerrotype in 1839. The subjects of the photos were generally arranged to appear as if peacefully asleep, all their earthly suffering ended. Displayed prominently in the household alongside other family photographs, the portraits helped heal grieving hearts by preserving some trace of the deceased.

And they still do.