History Medicine News of the Weird Popular culture

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.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

Comments are closed.


Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading