Death…it is an unavoidable part of life. Yet in modern human culture it’s a taboo subject, discussed only when necessary, and even then usually only in hushed whispers. Americans in particular are devoted to perpetuating the fantasy that you can stay young forever and live indefinitely, the narrative of eternal life scribed by theologians, who now pass the torch to transhumanist futurists and Big Pharma.
In the Victorian era, however, people embraced the reality of death, a fact which is perhaps unsurprising considering that the average life span was only around 40 years.
With the advent of photography, the Victorians were presented with an opportunity to immortalize the deceased in a way that was previously impossible. But because of the incredibly high cost of photography at the time, post-mortem photographs were, in many cases, the only photograph a family retained of the deceased. In the earliest forms of post-mortem photography, the dead were meticulously posed and made to look as if they were still alive. Children were posed in their beds or even alongside their families. Photographer-morticians employed special props and carefully arranged the corpses to stand upright for the families to pose with, leaving behind a treasure trove of gloriously macabre family portraits.
Adding even more to the eeriness was the ironic fact that in the early years of photography cameras processed pictures slower, so the living subjects in these photographs often appear slightly blurred while the dead subjects– who were motionless – appear with crystal clarity. Which is more defined, the living or the dead? The postmortem photographs were more common than any other kind of photograph in the Victorian era, especially in the U.S.
The term memento mori actually predates the Victorian era by centuries. The Latin translation of the term is, simply, “remember you must die.” It’s a philosophical term that reminds us of our transience on Earth, and serves as a warning to prepare ourselves for whatever other realm awaits us. Below are some creepy post-mortem photographs from the Victorian era. In the first photo, you can actually see the photographers assistant in the shadows holding up the coffin for the picture!
If you look closely at the photo below you can also see a base behind the deceased that was used to help prop them up.