Before the twentieth-century, death was a regular visitor to most households. When a loved one died, the family would prepare them for the funeral, and the body was kept at home for ‘visitation’ until burial. People were not shielded from the realities of death, and although it was in no way less harrowing for a family to lose a member, the acceptance and the mundane reality of mortality made it a regular part of household life.
Before the invention of the camera, the only way of preserving an image of a loved one was through a drawing or painting. If you were not lucky enough to know someone who was gifted in this way the only way to obtain a likeness to remember them by was through portrait painting. Portraiture was very much an option for the wealthy and for ordinary people; but for the poor, once someone died, that was it, there was no picture by which to remember them.
The new photographic technology gave a wider range of families a way of immortalizing their loved ones, and the practice of photographing the deceased became commonplace. This new trend became known as Memento Mori, and while it fell out of fashion again when personal cameras became accessible, the principle has seen something of a revival. Today, parents of stillborn babies, or children lost soon after birth, are encouraged to spend time with their child and have photographs taken to help preserve memories and solidify their existence.
16 So Much Death, So Little Medical Treatment
Children in the nineteenth century had a shockingly high risk of dying in infancy, and this infant mortality rate was closely tied to class. As a snapshot of the differences, in Liverpool, England in 1899, 136 out of every 1000 newborns from upper-class families died before their first birthday. In the working class areas, the rate was higher with 274 out of every 1000 dying before they reached the age of one and in the poverty-stricken slums a harrowing 509 of every 1000 infants would die before they could walk. Even once they were out of the most dangerous first year, half of the children born to servants, farmers and the like would die before they were five.
Doctors at the time were unable to effectively treat illnesses such as measles, smallpox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and dysentery. This is perhaps reflected in this first photograph that has what appears to be medicine bottles on the table beside the grieving parents and their child.
15 Not Just For The Rich
Once photography became more commonplace it became much more affordable, and this opened up an entirely new world where the less well off could afford to have a photograph taken with a lost loved one. This photo was likely the only one they would ever have taken because although it was cheaper, it was still a significant expense.
In addition, cameras were not the cheap, light and portable items they are now. Only professional photographers could afford to buy one and transportation was a significant issue. Some people were forced to take their dead loved ones to the studio because they could not afford the additional expense of a home visit. It the case of the images above you can tell the parents were not financially well off but had no doubt used every penny they could to have one picture by which to remember their child.
14 No Quick Snaps
The photography process was still an evolving art when memento mori became popular. The first images were on a silver plated copper sheet and required several minutes of exposure to take the picture. In addition, there were no negatives with which to make additional photos, each picture was the one and only copy, and if you wanted another, you had to pose for one.
The long exposure time meant that those posing in the photograph had to stay completely still for the duration of the exposure. Any movement caused blurring in the final shot, and that is what has happened in the image above. The mother holding her deceased baby has remained very still, but the two older children have been unable to do so, and subsequently, they are both blurred.
13 Brothers And Sisters
It is perhaps shocking to us today, but it was completely normal for the Victorians to have the surviving children in the photograph with their dead sibling. I cannot imagine many of us insisting that our older children should sit unmoving for up to fifteen minutes while holding the hand of a deceased brother or sister, yet that is what the Victorians had to do if they wanted a shot of all of their children together when one had died.
In many of these sibling shots, you will see the surviving brother or sister seated to make it easier to stay still. If they were not sitting down, they were often posed with one hand resting on a shoulder or piece of furniture as this made it easier to stay still.
12 Photographers’ Tricks
On some occasions, parents wanted portraits where their dead child looked as lifelike as possible. This was achieved in a couple of different ways. First of all the child was usually posed in a chair or in a reclining pose, so their body looked in a natural position. Secondly, if the photograph was being taken very soon after death and the eyeballs were still fresh, then yes, they would be propped open. More usually the picture was taken with the child’s eyes closed and eyes were painted on the finished photo by the photographer.
More unusual is the above shot of five siblings above. In this image, the body of the youngest child has been propped up so that she appears to be standing but her eyes have not ben added after the shot.
11 Also Together In Death
Unfortunately, the high mortality rate as a result of illness and disease often led to multiple children in the same family dying in quick succession. This was especially true when the death was due to scarlet fever or diphtheria. Some kids might initially recover from their illness but be so severely weakened that the slighted infection afterward was enough to kill them.
In Victorian households, children would recover from their initial illness, and their siblings would bring home a mild bug, and this would be enough to kill them. Just as the first disease was passed around, the second would sweep through causing multiple deaths. These children were often buried together, partly for economy but partly so they would be together in death.
10 The Imagery Of Death
In some households, the parents would carefully wash the body of their child before dressing them in their best clothes. In this case, the girls have been laid out in beautiful white lace dresses which would have been hand made and very expensive at the time. The photographer would be summoned, and the child, or in this case children would be placed in a suitable pose with flowers or headdresses on their hair, which would have also been carefully washed and styled.
Families often had powerful religious beliefs, and those were reflected in the choice of pose or arrangement of the photo. In this case, the girls both have their hands clasped together, as if in prayer, and have their rosary beads wrapped around so that they will be holding them in death.
9 Speaking With Flowers
The Victorians held manners in very high regard and thought it distasteful to talk about your emotions. Instead, they often communicated through the use of flowers and in the mid-eighteenth century there were dozens of “flower dictionaries” available to help you speak of affairs of the heart, without speaking about them.
When somebody died, you would be expected to keep your grief private and not cry in public, but you could express your feelings publicly through flowers. For this reason, parents who were too grief stricken to pose with their child’s body would place particular blooms with the corpse to express their love and sorrow. These were usually marigolds, chrysanthemums, lavender, and pansies. If specific plants were not available, then flowers from the diseased’s garden would be used.
8 Illness Was Not The Only Harbinger Of Death
Post-mortem portraiture was not only for parents to have reminders of their children and it wasn’t only sickness and disease that took the young. Alongside a high infant mortality rate was a staggering level of maternal deaths either during or shortly after childbirth. The main causeses were postpartum hemorrhage and puerperal pyrexia, a bacterial infection which was transmitted from patient to patient by doctors because handwashing was not yet an adopted practice.
Mothers during multiple births were at an exceptionally high risk of death because of the lack of medical expertise. There is no precise information available about the exact cause of death of the woman and her triplets in the photograph above. What is clear is the overwhelming grief the husband and father must have experienced and how precious this one image of his lost family must have been to him.
7 Mothers In Mourning
While some mothers survived the additional trauma of multiple births, the children were often less fortunate. As today, multiple births usually happens before the full term of pregnancy was reached, but unlike today there was little if any medical support available for premature babies. Even being born with slight breathing difficulties was often enough for a child to be beyond help.
There are a large proportion of young mothers in the memento mori pictures and there often seems to be an additional layer of grief on the faces of these young women. It is hard to imagine the joy and excitement of your first baby ending in death because the medical profession was unable to provide any help for your little one and then having only one opportunity to record your child’s existence in your arms.
6 Fathers Mourn Too
Less frequent are photographs of fathers alone with their children, and this may be because the man of the house was supposed to be very stoic and above grief and mourning. Those fathers shown alone with their children were often single fathers who had already lost their wife and were left to raise their children solo.
However, if you look for telltale signs you can see that, of course, fathers were just as grief stricken as mothers were at the loss of a child.
The father in this photograph had been arranged to support his daughter’s head in the crook of his arm but whether physically or emotionally this proved too much for him to cope with.
5 Quietly Sleeping
Understandably, many parents did not want to think of their child’s death every time they looked at a photograph, so some families chose to have their baby reclined on a bed or chaise lounge giving the impression that their little one had only drifted off to sleep.
This impression was often reinforced by having favorite toys or books lying next to the child as if they had fallen asleep while playing or reading and could wake up again at any moment.
The boy in the photo above is obviously from a family who has at least a basic level of education, meaning they probably had a small amount of money. It was unusual for children of the lower classes to be able to read.
4 Carefully Seated
A popular pose for children who had passed the baby stage but had not yet matured to have interests was the chair. This was suitable because the child had outgrown a crib or perambulator but wasn’t old enough to be placed as if they had fallen asleep playing. It was also a popular pose for the only child.
The chair would either have to be an upholstered chair with a seat deep enough to place the child far back and position them in a lifelike position.
If the suitable upholstered chair were unavailable, the child would be put on a seat with spindles on the back. These rods gave an anchor point to which the child would be attached to keep them in a secure upright position for the duration of the exposure of the photograph. Photographers would often bring a chair with them to ensure it was suitable for the photo.
3 Hidden Hands
When the photographer was unable to place the child’s corpse in a suitable position for the photograph the mother was often drafted in to help.
In the first photograph above it’s hard to see, but on the right, there is a slight bulge in the patterned background. The bump is likely to be the arm of a parent, hidden behind the floral background or curtain. This kind of hidden holding was standard practice and was frequently not so well done.
In the second image, the mother is clearly visible behind the chair her daughter has been placed upon. Her hand would have been around her child’s waist and covered by the dress and the cushion behind her. Somehow this woman in full mourning dress crouching behind her child in a last desperate bid to capture her child is even more poignant than some of the images of the children alone or the mothers posing with their children.
2 Changes In Fashion Even In Death
As in other types of photography, memento mori demonstrated cultural and social changes in the wider world.
Even young girls in the nineteenth century were required to be dressed with modesty at all times, and especially so in the one photograph, their family might have of them, the memento mori.
Photographs at this period were displayed with the same reverence as paintings because they were still relatively rare and new and nobody was able to take multiple photos of their family on a daily basis. As such even a child would be posed and dressed with the day’s social norms in mind.
The first photo above is clearly a very late example of memento mori, and the child pictured has a dress and coat that finish at the knee. These would have still been her best clothes, and the photo was probably taken in the mid-nineteen thirties.
1 International Differences
In many ways, grief is the same all over the world and across time. There is not a single parent alive who has lost a child and not been irrevocably changed by the death. So it is no surprise that memento mori became popular around the industrialized world with examples still existing from as far apart as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Austrailia.
Again, cultural and social differences reflect a sense of place as well as a sense of time and sometimes it is simple to tell where an image may have come from simply by the arrangement of the body and the props.
The photograph above is likely to have been taken in the United States where it was less likely a child would be propped up on a chair or photographed with siblings, and more likely they would be pictured in their stroller or crib. The crib, in this case, has been propped at an angle to enable the photographer to take the shot from the fixed tripod the camera would have been fixed too.
Sources: D. P. Helm ‘”A Sense of Mercies”: End of Life Care in the Victorian Home’ (Masters Thesis, University of Worcester, 2012), Oocities.org, MentalFloss.com, VictoriasPast.com, AtlasObscura.com, BBC.com, ScepticInk.com
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