By Jillian Heller
Funeral rites developed with human culture and are constantly changing. What may seem uncivilized, unpleasant, or strange to us today may have been the norm for a group of people in the past. Although perceptions and treatment of death are always shifting, there are a few things that remain constant, such as a ceremony, a sacred place for the deceased, and a memorial for the dead. Post-mortem photography was a very common method families used to memorialize their loved ones. This week’s objects are two powerful post-mortem images found in our archives.
During the 1800s, death was a socially acceptable topic. Dying was viewed as a very normal part of life, the ultimate act of nature. Death was not as feared like it is today and grief was a standard emotion to publicize. Separation of the body from the household increased anxiety over dying; being close to the incidence made the death of a loved one more realistic. In the 19th century there was a high rate of children mortality. These deaths usually occurred in the home and therefore all members of the family shared the experience. It was an affair to be documented and remembered. The taking of post-mortem photograph was a notable occasion, as the result left the relatives with a tangible memorial.
Post-mortem portraits were simply photographs of the very recently deceased for the remaining family. The photos had to be taken in a quick time frame, since this was before embalming became standard. The images were made possible using Daguerreotype photography. Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre was a French romantic painter and printmaker who invented this photographic image made famous in 1839. The photo was on a “highly polished, silver plated sheet of copper with iodine vapors, exposed in a large box camera, developed in mercury fumes, and stabilized with salt water.”1 It was viewed as mode of artistic expression, as well as a scientific tool. The use of this photography was perfect for depicting the loss of an individual.
The photographing of passed individuals was a very intimate scene. The photographer entered a special space where the only people outside the family present were a clergyman and a doctor. There were quite a few daguerreotypists during this time that advertised their services in print. One particularly haunting slogan from one was: “Secure the Shadow, Ere the Substance Fade, Let Nature imitate what Nature made.” The motto has unknown origins but seems to have stemmed from a 17th century fable.2 It can be assumed the word shadow alludes to what is left of the passed individual while the substance is what is fleeting the individual. The advertisement is also so fitting because daguerreotype photo is characteristic for its rendering of shadow and shading. The beautifully poignant phrase captures the important role post-mortem photography had in everyday life and to the family.
There were particular characteristics that were typical of post-mortem photography. When first viewing one of these eerie images, the individuals appear to be still living, with only subtly clues to elicit that they are actually dead. When post-mortem portraits began in the 1840s and 1850s they were typically close up shots and with few accouterments. Occasionally children would be holding toys or be held in their mother’s arms. A popular theme from 1840-1880 was “the last sleep”, where the passed individual is depicted as only sleeping.3 The Historic Huguenot Street Archives has an example of this. The image depicts the baby Margaret Holmes tucked in her blankets, lying down in a crib. Toddlers were often photographed in a christening dress, while young women were in a white dress that could represent a wedding dress. These gowns could symbolize these special life-defining occasions or simply a nightgown, as an illusion to eternal sleep.4
Post-mortem photography is associated with the Latin phrase Memento Mori, loosely translated as “remember your mortality”. These photographs appear to be disturbing or ghostly to a modern day eye, however, they served a great use in the 19th century. Capturing an image of the deceased in the natural setting of their home was viewed as an artistic creation of Memento Mori. These tangible memories of loved ones were precious possessions that can be looked at as eternal memorials of the departed.
1 “Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” Daguerre (1787–1851) and the Invention of Photography. The Metropolitan Museum, n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.
2 Henisch, Heinz K., and Bridget Ann. Henisch. The Photographic Experience, 1839-1914: Images and Attitudes. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1994. Print.
3 Hannavy, John. Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.
4 “Memento Mori.” Museum of Art and Archaeology. University of Missouri, n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2015.