"Blessed be the inventor of photography! I set him above even the inventor of chloroform! It has given more positive pleasure to poor suffering humanity than anything else that has cast up in my time or is like to — this art by which even the poor can possess themselves of tolerable likenesses of their absent dear ones." Jane Welsh Carlyle, 1860
I’ve always had a no doubt morbid interest in Victorian funeral rituals, and have something of a collection of mourning jewelry containing the hair of the dead, including, my prize possession, a beautiful ring which, the engraved script on the inside tells me, contains the remnants of a certain J. Cooling, who died at age 16, in 1849.
And, although I know very little about it, I’m also fascinated by Victorian death photography, the way they took advantage of the new technology to take snaps of their dead children or other relatives, often in uncanny life like poses, like this sometimes alone, and sometimes placed in a family setting. In this photograph, for example, one of the most moving I’ve seen, only the poses of the parents suggest the child is dead:
Sometimes there isn’t the slightest attempt to disguise the fact of death, as in this extremely odd photograph of a family grouping:
and sometimes the subject appears to be simply sleeping:
This one I find particularly eerie – is he really dead?:
There are a wide variety of such images available on the net, including the Haunted When it Rains site, and the
Thanatos-net , which has over seven hundred such images – although you now have to pay to access…
But what happened to funerary photography after the Victorian period? In his 1955 article, "The Pornography of Death," Geoffrey Gorer argued that the subject of death in twentieth-century society was avoided, especially with children, or spoken of in euphemisms if it could not be avoided. Death became something which takes place behind closed doors.
This has become something of a truism, but I wonder if things are starting to change in the twenty-first century. I certainly hadn’t realised that the practice of funerary photography – or now ‘bereavement photography’ – existed today until I found this website for Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep,
This is a non-profit association that recruits and trains photographers to provide their services on a volunteer basis to help families overcome the grief of losing an infant. You can search for a photographer by country, and although this seems to be primarily an American practice, it is not entirely so: 8 photographers in the UK, and 6 in Australia, for example, list their services.
I had mixed reactions to this website. Never having been in the position of losing a child, I’m completely unable to imagine the grief or the extent to which such photographs might provide comfort and help the grieving process. On the other hand, I found the images that some parents had permitted the site to put up in the Image gallery quite unbearable in a way the Victorian photographs are not (for me); they are simultaneously horrific, creepy, and overwhelmingly, heartbreakingly sad.
At the same time, on the Donation page, I was also struck by this comment: ‘Did you know that in 2006 the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep web site had over 1,000,000 unique visitors?’ I wasn’t entirely sure about how I felt about adding to their hits.
From an completely cynical perspective, one might wonder if there is now also a market for taxidermy, or as someone has already commented to me: So Children Are Mortal. However, there’s obviously more to it than this. It’s an ancient business – the Victorians certainly paid a lot for their photos, and they weren’t necessarily any less public: often the photos would be put on mourning cards that were then distributed.
What interests me about this site in particular, I think, is if it’s saying anything about changes in our contemporary views of death, or if it’s nothing new. Is the contemporary infant bereavement photography similar to, or different from Victorian funerary photography. To what extent do these images, thinking of Kristeva, confront us with the materiality of our own death, and to what extent are they simply part of a continuing rejection of death’s insistent materiality?
Posted by Glennis Byron University Sterling