Memento Mori: Post-Mortem Photography

Mourning is a strange thing, and different cultures deal with it in vastly different ways. But there’s a reason people associate the Victorians above all with morbidity and death, and one of them is memento mori.


During the Victorian Era, people honored and immortalized their dearly departed in a unique and rather eerie way--by photographing them moments after death. Take a look at some interesting post-mortem photographs that will make your hairs stand on end.

Also called memento mori or memorial portraiture, this hair-raising photography usually involved both close-up and full body shots of the deceased, but rarely with the coffin. The subject was made to look as if in a deep, peaceful slumber or even posed to appear more lifelike.

While the Latin term “memento mori” connotes the remembrance of man’s mortality, post-mortem photographs served more as family keepsakes to remember their dearly departed by. This was especially the case for infants and young children, as the mortality rate among children during the Victorian Era was remarkably high. Families often had no other photograph or images of their deceased children but the post-mortem photograph.


Typically, a post-mortem photograph depicted the dead person in a peaceful state of repose, as in a blissful deep sleep. But some of these post-mortem photos went further.  Sometimes they liked to pose the deceased as if he/she was living:

Early postmortem photographs are usually close-ups of the face, or full-body shots, and rarely include a coffin. The subject was often depicted as if asleep, but another popular practice was to arrange the subject to appear more lifelike, including bracing or tying the corpse into a standing position, or supporting the corpse on the bodies of other family members in the portrait. Children were often shown lying on a couch or in a bed, often with a favorite toy. It was common to photograph very young children with a family member, frequently the mother, but often with older siblings. Adults were more commonly posed in chairs or even braced and tied onto specially-designed frames.





An unusual example with the adult holding the deceased child being "shrouded". For me, though, more intriguing than the dead are the living who pose with them — usually stoic and reserved, it’s the little bit of emotion their faces betray that make these portraits so compelling … and heartbreaking.


Uhhhh..
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That girl looks seriously creeped out, and I don't blame her.
I wonder how they died?
This one looked really convincing.


Some were actually quite good.  In the pictures above you wouldn't expect them to be a dead.  The eyework isn't particularly jarring.  However, their pose are rigid.  You can see the base of the stand behind them, propping them up.  And their foot is raised off the ground (something you wouldn't do in an old-timey photo, since you had to pose still for along time)

Here's a particularly disturbing one:



Yeah, not disturbing, until you read about it:
This is a Petrolia post mortem photo by Robson . It was extremely expensive to have a photo taken during Victorian times. Only the wealthy could afford such a luxury. If a child or other loved one died it was a common practice to have a photo taken either alone or as in this case with the family especially if there was not yet a living likeness.If you look closely you can see a base behind the girls feet and a post would go up from that with clamps at the waist and neck and the clothing would be open at the back. The arms would have stiff wires running at the back to hold them in place. Also notice the strange placement of the hands. The pupils are painted on the closed eyelids.
Pupils painted on closed eyelids? *shudder*

I always remember the movie "The Others" when I saw these photos. I quickly became interested at the thought that it is something that every people don't want to talk about. 

I think that back in the Victorian era, death was much more "common" (in the sense of visible) in society than it is today in our highly "machine-operated" world where death has become something "un-natural" (which it surely isn't) to be hidden and stored away in hospitals and the like - so today taking a picture of a dead person might seem rather creepy, but back then it might have been perfectly reasonable as this might have been the only picture ever taken of a person... 

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The official practice of postmortem photography began to fade in the early twentieth century. Kodak introduced the Brownie camera and “snapshot” photography became a mass phenomenon; photos became more commonplace, and viewed much less as works of art. Death also became sparser, as health care and medical knowledge gained ground. Rather than embracing mortality, society began to shun any reminders of it.

So what do you think? This might be a good sideline.
You can view most of the photos here.

21 comments:

  1. A work similar to this was offered to me by a friend... actually funeral cia.... it was being passed to me because he was uncomfortable with the job.... well I declined it as well... hindi rin ako kumportable.... siguro these photographers.... felt just like how it is to take a living person's photograph....

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  2. mix emotions while reading your post and looking at the photos. One i like to shake the hands of the photographers for doing a great job of making the dead ones looked like they're just sleeping or at least relax. second, this is hard work! kagaling ng mga photographer na yan. di sila natatakot, duwag ako sa mga patay kahit na nakakakita ako ng kaluluwa hehe. third, ang lupet, kawawa naman ang katawan nung namatay, well kung game naman sila during the victorian time wala naman siguro ito pinagkaiba sa videoke machine na present kapag may mga burol, siguro depende sa panahon ang acceptance hahaha

    ang dami ko sinabi nyahahaha

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  3. WHAT IS CREEPY! Byron I hope I don't have nightmares tonight!

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  4. ang creeeeepy mo byron, ang CREEEPY MOOOO! :))

    Pero. In all fairness, I actually think its cool. Absurdly disgusting at eerie, pero kinda cool. I don't think I'd do it though. Kadiri and a little respect for the dead. Mamaya multuhin ka pa nyan.

    Char.

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  5. Spooky but very nice collection!

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  6. Fascinating! Photos 4-7 give me the creeps! And yung photo nung may boy sa horse, at first di ko alam kung sino ang patay dun. Haha.

    I think the first time I heard of it was via The Others, yung horror movie starring Nicole Kidman. But I didn't know it was called memento mori. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. Yes, The Others -- the most creepy and unexpected movie for me :D

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  8. It is indeed! And very interesting! :D

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  9. I think it just differs in context, kasi nasa ibang generation na tayo, where it's already considered a taboo, unlike before, that it's considered normal. Ayaw mo nun? babalikan ka nung mahal mo? Haha

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  10. Yup ang galing nila sobra! Cosidering na hndi pa advanced yung technology ng camera noon at gumagamit pa ng camera obscura, with really long exposure time.!

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  11. Tara open tayo ng business na ganito!

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  12. I never thought they still do this now! Would it be ok if I ask where?

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  13. the family dead in the bed...were shot and the children were thrown in a river but they were found x Their story is in the net :D

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  14. I would like to read the story, where's in the net

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  15. I used "Memento Mori" as a design concept in one of my design plates for a cemetery/memorial park under Sir Dimanlig. He returned it to me with a fair grade and a note saying it's such a scary concept to use! haha

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  16. This is the story of how the family died.

    This is a photograph of Carrie L. Parsons, wife and three children murdered by Joseph Hamilton about two miles east of Success, MO on Friday October the 12, 1906. Parsons had sold his crop to young Hamilton. On the day of the murder Parsons loaded his family in his wagon and started for Miller Co, MO when about two miles east of Success at what is known as the old Vance Place, he was murdered. The
    wagon was then driven into thicket of brush and left until about midnight that night when young Hamilton returned and drove to Piney River. There he threw all the bodies into the water , and two of the children were found by a fishing party within one hour after they were thrown in. Hamilton was arrested two days later trying to make his escape. He made a full confession of his crime and was hanged.

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  17. Thanks for the story!

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It would be nice to get a feedback from you :)