Posted by: melissayang | October 9, 2010

living memento mori (edited)

When discussing Victorian visual culture casually, the topic of photographed death tends to be a favorite. There are some familiar landmark images that come to mind, including death that is faked for the camera, such as Hippolyte Bayard’s “Self Portrait as a Drowned Man” (1840) – with death being used as a convenient narrative device to incorporate human subjects, given the  slow exposure time it took to capture a single image.

There are actual postmortem photographs, which I’m sure most of us are familiar with (if not, Google Search will bring up thousands upon thousands of results, and I think there’s a line on our syllabus for this topic, so I won’t go too in-depth here just yet…)  – typically including men and women sitting in chairs, children posed with their families, looking deeply asleep, sometimes among their favorite toys…

but as I was perusing the web, I found one tradition in postmortem photography I was not previously aware of, wherein the dead are actually posed as living.

Supposedly the girl in the center here is actually dead. The author of (where you can also see an enlargement of the image here) talks about how you can tell:

The girl’s rigid hands and painted-on pupils — not to mention the edge of a stand behind her left leg — give it away. The owner of the photograph adds:

If you look closely you can see a base behind the girls feet and a post would go up from that with clamps at the waist and neck and the clothing would be open at the back. The arms would have stiff wires running at the back to hold them in place. Also notice the strange placement of the hands. The pupils are painted on the closed eyelids.

I was unaware of  the lengths people went to to make their family members look alive — including having a dead body propped/held up with clamps, and painting eyes over closed eyelids. While the reasons seem to make sense (depicting the child as if still alive and among the family), I was surprised by how shocking I found this image, so I wanted to share.

OH! EDIT! I meant to discuss the contemporary ties to the portrayal of dead bodies in photographs today. I’ll try to come back to this later, but most contemporary images of death I can think of are not a) mementos nor b) posed earnestly. There are war photographs used for journalism and crime photographs used for investigations. More subversively, there are artists who use dead bodies in their work (one of my favorite photographers is Joel Peter-Witkin, who created complex images out of dismembered  parts of corpses to photograph – for example,, but I wonder if anything we can find today is comparable to the postmortem photographs of the Victorian era…


  1. Melissa, your post has led me on an intriguing (CREEPY!) series of googling– the fireman who is standing there as if alive (with the freaky eyes), the little boy lying beside the window (the blogger’s caption: “”Ah yes. Little Jimmy. I remember him looking outside the window…” *Shiver* What many of the websites I came across suggested that parents raised the money for the photo of their child after his/her death because this was their one chance to have a photo/memento of their child–which I think helps to explain our lack of this “genre” of photos today (we can and do take lots of pictures of our children, so we don’t have to wait until death to make sure we have some keepsake/remembrance of this person). (More information: Basically, I don’t have anything particularly new to add to your post, except I wanted to make sure you knew how fascinating I found your post and to add my two cents that I also don’t know if we could find anything comparable today to this Victorian postmortem photos.

    On a semi-related note, since you mentioned contemporary photos of the death in relation to war/crime, have you heard about this: ? “U.S. Soldiers Accused Of Murdering Afghans Posed For Dozens Of Photos With Corpses And Body Parts, Records Show…Those who have seen the photos say they are grisly: soldiers beside newly killed bodies, decaying corpses and severed fingers…Troops allegedly shared the photos by e-mail and thumb drive like electronic trading cards….At least some of the photos pertain to those killings. Others may have been of insurgents killed in battle, and some may have been taken as part of a military effort to document those killed, according to lawyers involved in the case. Among the most gruesome allegations is that some of the soldiers kept fingers from the bodies of Afghans they killed as war trophies. The troops also are accused of passing around photos of the dead and of the fingers….Four members of the unit – two of whom are also charged in the killings – have been accused of wrongfully possessing images of human casualties, and another is charged with trying to impede an investigation by having someone erase incriminating evidence from a computer hard drive….”Everyone would share the photographs,” one of the defendants, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, told investigators. “They were of every guy we ever killed in Afghanistan.” …On Sept. 9, Army prosecutors gave a military representative of the defendants, Maj. Benjamin K. Grimes, packets containing more than 1,000 pages of documents in the case. Included were three photographs, each of a different soldier lifting the head of a dead Afghan, according to an e-mail Grimes sent to defense lawyers. Michael T. Corgan, a Vietnam veteran who teaches international relations at Boston University, said it should be no surprise that, even after Abu Ghraib, some soldiers take gruesome pictures as war souvenirs.”They’re proof people are as tough as they say they are,” Corgan said. “War is the one lyric experience in their lives – by comparison every else is punching a time clock. They revel in it, and they collect memories of it.” (Sorry, I wanted to just pull a few quotes from the article, but I got carried away. It’s been all over the news, so you’ve probably heard of it already, but I thought it was vaguely relevant to your mentions of contemporary images of the dead and wanted to share. This controversial case seems to carry with it some similar elements to your first topic and topics discussed in class–the desire for “memories” as the final quote shows, sharing of the images (like the sharing of infants of deceased children with family members), photos as “evidence” (and, here, evidence that has been destroyed in some cases) carrying truth/authority/legal power, etc. Creepy, just in an entirely different way.

  2. Hi again, Meghan! I somehow forgot to reply to this previously, but 1. I am glad you found the post intriguing and 2. The story of the soldiers posing with the body parts of victims is such an interesting case. The importance of “mementos” in society certainly hasn’t diminished, nor has photography’s power — yet the attitude towards mementos related to death/the image of death have completely shifted — it is strange how in the US, they are almost always surrounded by controversy and sensationalism. While I was in Italy, for example, I remember being surprised at how casual an experience it was to walk into a cathedral and find relics of saints, in the form of skeletons and mummified body parts — they more or less accept it as something that is historically and spiritually significant. However, there were then gift shops attached targeting foreign (usually US) tourists with images of St. Catherine’s mummified head and finger, and what not. This is not to say that contemporary sensationalism of everyday images of death only occurs in the US — obviously this isn’t true — but it is interesting to me the hush-hush and sterility of how death is treated here today, both physically and in images — with the exception of how it is used in crime sensationalism.

    I did some further searching on contemporary postmortem photography, and found this post from 2007: which discusses a non-profit organization in Colorado which takes post-mortem photographs of infants based in Victorian tradition: “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep specializes in infant bereavement photography. Co-founded in 2005 by Cheryl Haggard, whose fourth child died just six days after his birth, and photographer Sandy Puc, the group connects a network of photographers who provide their services free of charge with parents grieving the loss of a new child. The photos, some of which can be seen on the group’s website, are beautiful: softly lit, in velvet tones of black, white, and grey. They are the somber, private opposite of the bright commercial flower-children photographs of Anne Geddes. Amazingly serene moments are captured; tiny bodies are cradled gently and held close. By no stretch of the imagination are they morbid.”

    Again, interesting how the author has to remind the reader that this is “not morbid.”

    And then I went on Wikipedia (which would probably have been a logical first step), and found several artists who incorporate death into their work:
    -Andres Serrano (also famous for his “Piss Christ” and other works involving bodily fluids) took portraits of corpses in morgues, some of which can be seen here (warning: graphic!): — his seems more to be shock art than commemoration, from what I can tell of it. I’m not too familiar with his work, and can’t seem to find much more online…

    -Maeve Berry’s “Incandescence” series is made up of photographs taken inside a funeral cremator, and “aim to confront the taboos surrounding death imagery in modern society.” The description on says her work is “aesthetically pleasing allowing the viewer to linger and reflect without feeling uneasy. Maeve Berry explores this visual void, demystifying and stripping back all material trappings – bones laid bare to reveal beauty in the thing that we fear the most.” This, I think, is a more subtle work, but still relevant to death and visuality.

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