I suppose at this point I’ve either totally lost you and you are questioning whether you want to continue reading my article for this week, or you are intrigued enough to stay with me to find out what in the world I’m talking about. So, hang on, and you’ll see where I’m going with this.
The subject has no specified name or title. It does, however, go by numerous descriptive terms. The one I believe is most aptly stated is, Post-Mortem Photography. Memorial Portraiture, Mourning Portrait, Death Portraits and Death Photography are also common terms for this practice.
The painting of dead people has a long history, particularly among the elite class. Yet even those paintings were performed to have the person appear fully alive. So when photography began replacing paintings in the mid-1800s, the shift from painting dead loved ones to photographing the same is not too much of a leap. It was during the Victorian Era that post-mortem photography came into its own, not only in England, but all across Europe and America. In many instances, due to a much higher infant mortality rate, it was not at all unusual for an infant or small child to have never been photographed at all. A photo image thus became the memento mori for the family, a photographic keepsake, if you will. In this way it reminds those still living that death ultimately comes to us all.
Such a practice as post-mortem photography to us today seems exceptionally creepy. “During the first few years of its existence, the daguerreotype--a small, highly detailed picture on polished silver--was an expensive luxury. As the number of photographers increased throughout the 1840s, the cost of daguerreotypes diminished. Other, less costly procedures were introduced in the 1850s, along with novel forms of portraiture like the ambrotype (on glass), the tintype (on thin, cheap metal), and the carte-de-visite (on paper). By the 1860s, photographic portraiture was affordable to virtually all members of society.” (Memento Mori: Death and Photography in 19th Century America, by Dan Meinwald,).
There are today many of these photos from the 1800s which clearly show the dead person in a casket, or seated in a favorite chair, or even posing with living family members. One picture I found particularly interesting was an elderly man seated in what appears to be a favorite stuffed chair. He is propped up in an attempt to make him look natural, dare I say, alive. His two favorite dogs, very much alive, are curled up on either side of him. Another shot I had difficulty with was a gaggle of children (six, as I recall), standing in a row from the oldest to the youngest. The first five children are alive. The sixth and youngest child has died, yet there she is, propped up in a standing position, posing with her brothers and sisters.
A family that desired to have a portrait in death made of a loved one was facing possible economic hardship due to the over-the-top costs being charged by photographers. One factor that made these pictures expensive was geography. Typically a person to be photographed in the mid-1800s would go to the studio where the photographer had everything set up. However, with a dead person, the photographer would have to pack up his gear and go to wherever the deceased was being kept, usually in the loved-one’s home.
At the same time that I was reading about post-mortem photography, I was also engrossed in one of my favorite genres of books – the Western. Coincidentally, the western I was reading at that very same time had a character portrayed as a photographer of the dead. He was creepy and ghoulish and was himself killed in the story. But in the little town out west where he chose to set up shop, he desperately wanted to be the first to take a photo of a dead gunfighter who was a shade too slow on the draw. And if there were any other gruesome deaths he could photograph, all the better.
Today as a society we no longer continue this practice of creating photographs of our dearly departed. Many have speculated as to why this is so. To me it doesn’t matter. Why? Because this physical body merely transports my soul for a brief time on earth before it is forced to relinquish my soul and spirit into the bosom of Jesus, my Lord and Savior.
The Apostle Paul fairly shouts in 1st Corinthians 15:55, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” In Jesus, death no longer holds us in fear.
Easter celebrates Jesus’s sacrificial death on the cross for you and me. He overcame the penalty of sin and death by rising again from the dead.
So enough with the creepy, morbid, ghoulish visions of death. Because Jesus is alive, so am I – forever!