Memento Mori, Postmortem Photography

Remembering the Deceased in the 19th Century

Recently, we watched The Others, a 2001 horror film by Alejandro Amenábar, starring Nicole Kidman (comments to come soon). In the film, Kidman’s character discovers an album filled with strange photographs. She asks her housekeeper about them and learns she holds an album of the dead; that is, a collection of photos of the recently deceased posed as they appeared in life.

Some may not be familiar with the practice as it has all but died out, though occasionally you will still see posed photos of the dead even today. You may be surprised to learn that it was fairly common practice to photograph deceased loved ones to keep as mementos and preserve their memory.

Postmortem photography developed soon after the invention of photography. While the wealthy could easily afford to have their likeness and those of people dear to them captured in paintings for posterity, such expense was beyond the means of ordinary people. Photography provided the rising middleclass with a way to keep a memento of husbands, wives, and children. The practice continued throughout the 19th century, dying out when snap photography came on the scene, allowing for living images.

Postmortem photography proved popular enough that photo studios advertised it as among their business’s specialties. Photographers often posed the dead in life-like situations: seated, reading, playing with toys (in the case of children), and the like. In many photos, you’ll see the subjects’ eyes open, done to create as life-like an effect as possible. Common, also, was posing the dead with their brothers and sisters, with their parents, or in a full family portrait.

While this may seem particularly macabre to us, people of the times regarded it as anything but. Famous and prolific letter writer, and wife of historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle, Jane Welsh Carlyle wrote to a friend in praise of its commemorative value:

“Blessed be the inventor of photography! I set him above even the inventor of chloroform! It has given more positive pleasure to poor suffering humanity than anything else that has cast up in my time or is like to — this art by which even the poor can possess themselves of tolerable likenesses of their absent dear ones.” (Find in her letter to a Mrs. Stirling of Edinburg, 1859, from A letter book, selected with an introduction on the history and art of letterwriting, by George Saintsbury, 1922)

We’ll let hers be the final word on Memento Mori.

To view samples, see these at BuzzFeed. c/w


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