Shortly after the daguerrotype was invented, portraits of the dead became commonplace. These strange photographs were called Memento Mori.
Keeping a likeness of famous people who have died goes back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians, for instance, used to mummify the corpses of kings and other important people to preserve the body.
Making death masks, or using plaster or precious metals to make an impression of the face of a deceased person, also helped memorialize the famous. There are death masks of such luminaries as Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Alfred Hitchcock, Leo Tolstoy, and John Dillinger.
Another way to memorialize the deceased was to have his or her picture painted as though still alive. Henry VIII, for instance, once commissioned a portrait of himself, his son Edward, and his long-deceased wife, Jane Seymour, as if Jane still lived.
Wealthy Victorian families who lost a child often had an artist depict the child alive. Most of these pictures contained subtle cues, such as depicting the child dressed in black or holding a rose with a broken stem, that let people know that the subject of the portrait had died.
Death Photography and the Dagguerreotype
Soon after the dagguerreotype was invented in 1840, it became commonplace for grieving families to have pictures taken of their deceased loved ones.
High child mortality rates, and the expense of having a photograph taken, often meant that the only pictures parents had of their children were taken after the children’s deaths. Some of the pictures were full-sized portraits. Others were kept in trinkets or lockets, often along with a lock of the deceased child’s hair.
In England, the deceased were usually photographed in their caskets. In the United States, however, it was traditional to pose the deceased person as if he or she were still living. Photographers had tricks of the trade such as stands and supports, makeup to hide pale skin, and even methods for opening the eyes and retouching photographs to subtly alter the blank expression of death.
Children were usually posed in bed or in the arms of their parents. Adults were more often posed sitting in chairs or even standing with their bodies supported by special frames. Even beloved pets were sometimes photographed on their owner’s laps after death.
These death photographs were called Memento Mori, which translates to, “Remember, you shall die.”
According to Harold Schechter in his book, The Whole Death Catalog, professional photographers counted Memento Mori as an important component of their businesses. Many advertised that they could be available within an hour or two of death. By this time, the body had often gone into rigor mortis, which accounts for some of the stiff, unnatural positions depicted in these photos.
Alive or Dead?
Because photography was still in its infancy, and even pictures of the living often appear rigid and staged, there is a set of ambiguous photographs where it is not entirely clear if the subject is alive, dying, or already dead.
Usually an adult or a child photographed lying down is assumed to be dead. Because photographs were so expensive, candid shots of a sleeping person were simply not done. Any living person who was being photographed wanted to look his or her best, and that meant sitting or standing and looking at the camera with a serious expression.
Some experts advise people looking for Memento Mori to look at the eyes of the subject. The eyes of the deceased were often retouched by hand to appear less blank and more lifelike. However, looking for retouched eyes is not infallible. Unlike today’s cameras, which can take a picture in an instant, subjects of older methods of photography had to sit perfectly still for several minutes so that the picture wouldn’t blur. If they blinked at the wrong moment, their eyes would appear closed or blank and would have to be retouched by hand.
Another tell-tale sign of Memento Mori is a subject who is being supported by a stand or a frame, but again, this sign is not foolproof. Living subjects, too, sometimes relied on frames to help them hold a dignified, erect posture for the time that was needed to take a successful photograph.
The only way to be sure whether or not an ambiguous picture is a Memento Mori is to check the date of the picture against the date of the subject’s death, but this information is not always available to amateur historians.
Modern Day Memento Mori
Today, the practice of photographing deceased people has largely faded away. After all, almost everyone owns a camera, and most people have dozens of pictures of their loved ones in life. There is no need to take a picture in death.
The one exception is infants who die at or before birth. Most hospital bereavement programs believe that it is very important to make pictures of the dead infant available to his or her family members. As in the older Memento Mori, the deceased infant is usually being held by parents or other family members.
Many parents display these pictures proudly as a way to ensure that the deceased infant remains a part of their family history.
Responses to Death Photography
In Victorian times, everyone knew how to respond appropriately to photographs of the deceased. In modern times, most people’s first response is “gross” or “creepy.”
If someone shows you a picture of a deceased loved one, whether it was taken in Victorian times or in a modern hospital after the death of an infant, the appropriate response is one of respect and interest. You might, for instance, say, “She’s a beautiful baby,” or “Tell me a little about him” or “I can tell this picture means so much to you.”
Memento Mori might seem a little morbid to our modern sensibilities, but in Victorian times it was an important way to preserve the memory of a loved one.