I love old photographs, those keepsakes from a time when digital photography and computers hadn’t yet completely transformed the technology and practice of one of our most treasured human art forms. Perhaps you too have admired the ruffled gowns, elegant furniture, and formality of Victorian Age photography. But what you may not have known is that some of those vintage photographs are portraits not of the living, but of the dead.
What is memento mori?
Memento mori (literally, in Latin, “remember that you will die”) were portrait photographs taken in the 1800s of dead people. While that sounds gruesome and possibly horrific to our modern standards, great pains were made to make the deceased individuals look beautiful in these photos: either as if they were alive and either awake or simply sleeping peacefully. The point was to capture (quickly, before decomposition) an image of a person’s physicality before he or she was laid to rest.
How was it done?
The services of mourning photographers were employed very shortly after death, and after the family dressed the deceased in his or her final clothing. Often the dead individual was photographed in bed, surrounded by flowers or other serene props. Other times he or she was laid out on a couch or reclining chair, with or without surrounding loved ones. Sometimes propping stands were used to place the individual in a more lifelike position, even standing amongst family members. Sometimes it is a bit difficult to discern the living from the dead in these types of old photos, as even the living were generally photographed with stoic expressions, formal clothing, and far-off gazes.
Why was it done?
At the time when this trend was popular, photography was in its infancy. A family portrait was a cherished and priceless family heirloom, often quite costly. It was extremely special to have a photograph taken of yourself, a loved one, or an entire family. Often the memento mori served as one of the only photographs taken of a person in his or her lifetime. This is especially and heartbreakingly true if the subject of the photograph were a child, as was often the case.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, infant and child mortality was still very high. Children would die frequently and unexpectedly due to diseases which are practically unheard of today. My own grandfather’s younger brother died from tuberculosis as a toddler in the early twentieth century. It was vitally important for families to have a lasting keepsake of a loved one’s time on earth, especially if that time was short and easily forgotten by a quickly-changing world. This type of photography declined in popularity in the United States in the early twentieth century, as photography itself became more commonplace.
As macabre as this practice seems to most people today, we can at least understand the motivation behind it. As we document every aspect of our lives–from the mundane to the significant–with digital photos we post to social media sites, how can we possibly judge a society for wanting to capture the last, and perhaps only, image of a treasured child or relative?