One of my many morbid little interests in this life is how we as humans have treated death throughout our history, especially during the Victorian era between the years 1837, when Queen Victoria took the throne in England, until her death in 1901. The Victorian era held some strict practices when it came to the final chapter of life. Some historians have described the Victorian handling and obsession with mourning customs the “Cult of Death.” When I started to learn all the crazy stuff the Victorian’s did in regards to death, I was most shocked and hypnotized by their practice of mourning photography. What’s that you ask? In a nutshell — photos of dead people.
While visiting friends in Pennsylvania one year, we spent time perusing local antique stores and every time I saw a box of old pictures, I’d search its contents, hoping some ignorant antique dealer would have slipped in a dead person photo, confusing it as someone just taking a nap.
But many of the eastern states have great antique stores with older and different items than what I find in Michigan stores. As I rummaged through picture after picture of people long dead and gone, they all looked very much alive and well in the photos. I also didn’t know how to go up to a store owner and ask for these kinds of pictures.
“Um…excuse me? I’m trying to find photos of dead people. Do you have any or know who’s dealing them?”
They would either know what I was talking about if they were savvy or I would have to explain myself for the next ten minutes as to the historical significance of these cultural bygones so as not to appear too creepy, and then blame the desire to purchase such photo on an imaginary, “eccentric” friend that collects these sorts of “crazy things” and really wants one for her birthday.
I never found one during that trip or I should say, “I never found one I could afford.” Of course anything wonderfully dark and macabre always has a healthy value in the antique world. Walking through an antique store in Gettysburg, my friend pointed up at a beautifully framed and large photo on top of a showcase and there it was — a dead person surrounded by flowers resting peacefully in their casket. Price tag? $400.
I eventually got a good price on a dead baby postmortem photo. $15 was more in my price range. It really just looks like a sleeping baby in a crib with an unhealthy skin tone. It’s now a conversation starter around the house when people come over. “Oh that old thing? That’s just a picture of a dead baby from one hundred years ago.”
VICTORIAN POSTMORTEM PHOTOGRAPHY 101
A family member dies. Now it’s your job to “artfully” pose and display them for a photo to keep and hang on your living room wall for all to admire every…single…day. Here are a few of my favorite examples of mourning photography.