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Does taking photographs of the dead seem repulsive?
Well, that’s one way you could stand to benefit from Victorian values (a rarity indeed).
To citizens of the 1800s, death was a constant companion, and so they had developed elaborate customs to cope with life’s ephemeral departure.
The early 19th century also saw the advent of photography, and with it, the ability to preserve moments forever. Thanks to the work of Louis Daguerre and Nicéphore Niépce (whose co-invention was brought to fruition after his death by Daguerre), images printed on metallic surfaces quickly became one of humanity’s great equalizers: anyone could have their likeness preserved for posterity! No more would the right belong to nobility, and the process no longer needed to take several weeks of standing still in a fur coat for reference.
The earliest known exposure of human beings. Someday, the invention would bring us cat memes.
But soon enough, photography became linked with mankind’s other great equalizer: death.
The first daguerreotype exposure was made in 1839. The earliest known postmortem photograph was taken in 1841.
That’s right. Instead of using the new technology to snap pictures of their food to humble-brag about, people took pictures of the dead.
In a bygone era marked by diphtheria, cholera, and tuberculosis (all those diseases itching to come back because one of your Facebook friends declined to vaccinate their children on the grounds that “My yoga teacher taught me a pomegranate remedy to drink out of a mason jar instead!”), death came calling with impunity. People had large families, and many of those family members died young. So if a poor soul succumbed to death before an exposure could be taken, many families resolved to take a picture with their loved one anyway.
However, there are many misconceptions of the practice proliferated across the internet.
postmortem photography was more about memento mori: the photos served as funereal forget-me-nots of the deceased for safekeeping
One myth goes that while photography was attainable to the common folk, the novel concept certainly wasn’t cheap, and that for many, early photography was so expensive, that families only had a few portraits taken throughout their life.
While certainly not inexpensive, and initially a rare service, photography wasn’t so cost-prohibitive as to only take one photo per lifetime. And these portraits were more than just a manner to justify an expenditure. While it’s true that for a number of people, the opportunity for a photograph only arrived after their life had ended, postmortem photography was more about memento mori: the photos served as funereal forget-me-nots of the deceased for safekeeping, as mailers to far-flung relatives unable to attend the ceremony, and as reminders to those left behind of own mortality.
A fond keepsake of life’s ephemeral beauty.
And so, corpses were posed, made up, and captured by daguerreotype. The process necessitated subjects stay absolutely still while the long exposure etched the image onto a silver substrate, so if anything the dead took better, clearer pictures anyway. (Talk about getting the “good side”).
However, this fact has led to a lot of erroneous photos spread throughout the web. It’s important to note that just because a subject is still, does not a postmortem photo make. Allegedly spooky shots of corpses, some appearing to be arranged upright with clamps and stands, make their rounds around the net, but most of the subjects were actually still alive and kicking at the time the photo was taken.
Yep. Totally alive. Well, definitely gone now, but at the time...
There are a lot of factors that can make an old exposure look ghastly. For instance, different colouring processes could make blue eyes appear a glassy white. And while a little tricky to do, it was entirely possible to get images with no trace of motion blur. The stands that some allege were used to prop up the dead could never have supported the weight of a corpse – they were actually just devices to prevent living subjects from moving too long during the long exposures and prevent blurring.
Mr. Edison here only looks like he lacks a soul, because he never had one in the first place: but more on that in a future entry.
An authentic gallery of true postmortem exposures is curated by Paul Frecker London, and may be found and viewed at http://www.paulfrecker.com/collections.cfm?pagetype=library&typeID=1&myPage=1
Though it may seem disturbing to some today, we should see the sentimental sweetness behind the apparently morbid: these post-mortem pictures were photographic forget-me-nots, macabre mementoes to help grieve and remember the visage of a lost child, spouse, sibling, or parent. It was a way of keeping a loved one’s memory alive. After all, it was the last chance to capture a permanent memory. Many photographers were skilled at creating “last likenesses”; putting the body in repose, as if asleep, to gently soften the blow of life’s cruel end.
Sadly, it’s a tender tradition that practically became lost to time. Over the decades, as cameras became common, mortality rates fell, and mourning practices changed, postmortem photography fell out of fashion and frequency (and with changing attitudes about death, it certainly became too morbid a subject to write about – luckily for you, we have no such reservations here).
And in the homes of the Toraja, live the dead.
However, the practice is still alive and well (*ahem, well, forgive the expression*) in one corner of the globe. The Tana Toraja Regency, a mountainous area of South Sulawesi, Indonesia, is home to an ethnic group called the Toraja. And in the homes of the Toraja, live the dead.
To the Toraja, life doesn’t end when someone stops breathing. They believe a body is still alive until a funeral can be held, and a ritual sacrifice of an animal be made. Only then is the body able to make its ma’karu’dusan (“to exhale the last breath”) In keeping with old animistic traditions, the Toraja partake in lavish funerals where corpses are celebrated, and homed in traditional houses called Tongkonan. But these elaborate rites can take years to save up for. So in the meantime, the mummified forms of departed loved ones live in the home – sometimes for 7 years or more. And even after they stop being roommates and the departed moves on to the next life, the relationship doesn’t cease: every three years, during the ma’nene festival, families exhume their mummified loved ones from the Tongkonan, and tend to them once more. They redress bandages, they change their clothes, and they talk to the ones they hold dear as if they were still here. And you can bet they take photos with them.
And you thought it was tough to get Aunt Deborah to smile.
And even in the Western world today, many hospital photographers offer to provide last likenesses for stillborn babies. Many say it makes the bereavement tangible, and help mothers alleviate their grief.
So instead of gawking at these “ghastly” group photos, perhaps we should instead examine our own relationship with death, and look at it through a different filter. Though death still permeates every facet of our lives today, we don’t like to talk about it.
We keep death at a distance. We spend thousands upon thousands on products to keep us from thinking about our own mortality (instead, why don’t you shop at the Lost Lounge, which always errs on the spectral side? See? Spooky and shameless!)
...this puts us at a distance from death, creating a corrosive fear of it and limiting our ability to mourn and cope.
We hire industrialized mortuary companies operating under the guises of family funeral parlours to whisk our deceased loved ones away to a facility, pump them full of embalming fluids, then entomb them in concrete vaults. Caitlin Doughty, mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death, argues that this puts us at a distance from death, creating a corrosive fear of it and limiting our ability to mourn and cope.
Why don’t we bring death closer, and capture it from another angle? Why don’t we commit our grief to celluloid, and remember the deep humanity behind every still frame? After all, you’re going to die too, one day. Don’t you want to look drop-dead gorgeous?
Because maybe death doesn’t mean goodbye. Maybe it just means “See you #latergram.”
“The Unpleasant Duty: An Introduction to Postmortem Photography” by Kelly Christian
“Myths of Victorian Postmortem Photography” by Edward Clint
“Clearing Up Some Myths About Victorian Postmortem Photography” by Sonya Vatomsky
“When Death Doesn’t Mean Goodbye” by Amanda Bennett
“Tana Toraja: A Culture Whose Views on Death Will Blow Your Mind”
“Advice for taking pictures of deceased or dying babies”
From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty