Memento Mori

Is a family portrait not complete without everyone in the photograph, even if one of the family is, well, deceased? Ask this Victorian family as well as many others of the era on both sides of “the pond” and they would argue yes.

The practice of photographing dead loved ones is almost synonymous with the early beginning of photography itself in the mid to late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Photo portraits were an expensive luxury at first, but as the technology developed further (glass negatives instead of the Daguerreotype metal plates first used), many families began to use this seemingly morbid practice to remember those who have passed. But is it as morbid as we in the twenty-first century may believe? The Egyptians mummified their great leaders for, at a basic level, to be remembered for all eternity. So far so good.

We’re living in a time where digital photography reigns and will continue to do so thanks to smart phones and tablets with high-resolution and high-quality miniature camera lenses. Also we’re a society as a whole that takes an endless series of selfies wherever we go in life. And while it’s fun to take self portraits of ourselves and loved ones at beautiful sites and places, there are those who will take self-portraits in the most mundane of places, say Taco Bell for instance, and sadly, in the bathroom mirror. The purpose of selfies naturally leans towards selfishness, but it is also to be remembered. People as a whole never forget stupidity.

I’d wager most of the amateur shutterbugs today probably don’t know of the practice of memorializing dead loved ones through photography as much as they should because they proably don’t know the circumstances behind the reasoning: high death rates. It wasn’t until the polio vaccine was developed in the 1950s that American death rates were able to plummet as they have. In the Victorian era before antibiotics and vaccines, any number of common and uncommon diseases could take away a loved one. When death struck and took someone, many families wanted to memorialize that person after death other than a simple headstone in a graveyard and photos were the means to accomplish this.

Keep in mind though, the shutter speeds of early cameras were not fast at all and sometimes required sitting still for a longer period of times than a mere few seconds. Can you imagine the family pictured above sitting in these positions with their dead daughter for a minute or more to get the exposure on film? The many generations before us were certainly a lot less squeamish than we are today. Again, that also has to do with the modern mortality rates. In other words, people were more accustomed to death.

We as a modern society do not handle death as those, say, a hundred and fifty years ago. We’re a little past the sesquicentennial of the end of the War of Northern Aggression (that’s the Civil War for all you Yankees) which was America’s first real visage of death, a war that also popularized photography in America. Some of the best and most grisly images in American history come from pictures taken after some of our most heated and bloody battles, Antietam, Shiloh and Gettysburg for example. The public couldn’t get enough. And perhaps it is a good thing that this conflict was documented in this manner for teaching future generations about the horrors of conflict and war, sometimes a sadly necessary function of humanity.

But what can and do death portraits teach the selfie generation? I see daily posts on Facebook of friends of mine opine through status or meme how much they miss a parent or other meaningful loved ones and I understand fully. It is hard to let go. And I see posts of people who are screaming for attention, often in various and dangerous ways in a public forum like Facebook.

The literal translation of memento mori from Latin is “remember that you have to die”. It is the “medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits”. The “live for today” generation doesn’t truly appreciate the time we have now and the looming end each of us have. Perhaps the Victorian era had a leg up on us with this realization.

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