Lyndsey Amadeo Gray
What a comfort it is to possess the image of those who are removed from
our sight. We may raise an image of them in our minds but that has not the
tangibility of one we can see with our bodily eyes.
Flora A. Windeyer, in a letter to Rev. John Blomfield, November 1870
Imagine you are
part of a family in the early part of the Victorian age.
Death is very much a part of your everyday life, thus making it easier to
accept. The death rate practically matched the birth rate at this time.
Most deaths occurred in young children from small pox and yellow fever and
women in childbirth. Children were often ripped from the family before
reaching their first birthday.
Another major cause of death occurred among soldiers and people with
injuries that are minor ailments today. Amputations often went wrong and
minor infections were mistaken for something more. Infections from a cut or
scrape werent treated properly and morphed into serious infections which
were life threatening, such as gangrene. Also bacteria wasnt taken into
consideration so nothing was done to prevent risks for infections.
Special etiquette revolved around death; these standards were practiced
moreso by women than men. Women were thought to have more emotional pain
than men. For at least a year after a husbands death, the wife would have
to stay in deep mourning, dressing in only black and only leaving the house
to go to church and visit relatives. In the following year the wife would
go into half-mourning and wear the colors gray, white, and purple. This
mostly applied to immediate family, such as the death of the husband, child
or sister. The men were required to wear black armbands to signify
These standards were practiced by commoners and high society alike; when Queen Victoria
lost her husband, Prince Albert in 1861, she remained in mourning until her
death. Most of England followed suit. Every single person was touched by
the darkness and plague of the death of a loved one. No one was left out of
the equation; the pain one had to deal with became so common to society as
The symphony repressed within someone was stored in trinkets and souvenirs
of their loved ones. The most common memoriam was a photograph. In 1839,
the first picture, the daguerreotype, was printed on a highly polished
metal plate. Louis-Jacques Daguerre in France invented this process, and
Americans madly embraced it.
Although it provided an accurate image, the daguerreotype process demanded
care. Exposure time could take as long fifteen minutes. The daguerreotypes
popularity declined in the 1850s when replaced by a cheaper process known
as the ambrotype. An ambrotype was an early type of photograph made by
imaging a negative on glass backed by a dark surface. Tintype, also known
as ferrotype, was also incorporated. Tintypes are positive photographs made
directly on an iron plate varnished with a thin sensitized film.
Before this great invention, only the wealthy had post-mortem portraits of
their loved ones. Well-known artists would paint wealthy families and loved
ones, but with photography, creating mementos became more accessible. It
was much cheaper and quicker than painted portraits therefore allowing the
lower class population their own mementos.
In most Victorian post-mortem photography, the deceased was shown peacefully sleeping. In deaths involving children, post-mortem photography was especially precious since little or no pictures were taken before their death. Most children were propped up and surrounded by their toys to give a more lifelike feel. Sometimes the parents or siblings were shown posed with the deceased child. A single negative could produce multiple prints enabling the family to send the picture to other relatives. Most pictures were thought to be a keepsake rather than an alarming reminder of short mortality.
Post-mortem photography occurs more often than not in todays society and
many people take interest in it. Obviously its very important to crime
scene investigators and to the justice system as a whole. Many people have
collections of post-mortem photography from the Victorian
Era and are still working on expanding their album. Thomas Harris, a New
York collector, explains his fascination, saying, They are meant to be
serene, and they are thought-provoking in appreciating the gift of life.
Many post-mortem books were made in the 90s including many photographs from the Victorian era and even now this photography is used in movies. These movies include feardotcom, The Ring and Se7en. Also many TV shows including Law & Order and CSI involve post-mortem photography. Death is as much a part of life today as in the Victorian Era, however the attitudes have changed dramatically.
Books titles on death and post-mortem photography can be found here
Two of the most spectacular books on this matter, Sleeping Beauty: Memorial
Photography in America
and Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement and the
Family in Memorial Photography
can be found in any library and the author
Stanley Burns website www.sleepingbeauty2.com
Post-mortem portraits prove eternally popular as collectibles
, article from the Houston Chronicle by Renee Kientz
Victorian Death Rituals
The Mourning After (Victorian Mourning Customs)
Civil War Mourning
The Invention of Photography