The Brief and Lively History of Postmortem Photography
By Adam Ethan Berner
There is a strange and complicated relationship between photography and death. To be alive means to be constantly moving, to be constantly changing; when one’s heart stops one dies. The camera lens stops this, arresting life and forcing it into unnatural stillness. And yet, photography memorializes the subject, becoming a testimony to the lives within the frame, holding them in that moment. The image renders the subject both as still as the grave and forever alive; like a fly trapped in amber.
The image above was taken during the photography’s infancy in the Victorian-era, and features an older couple holding a slightly less alive family member between them. Such photos were actually quite common during this time, when the technology of capturing and preserving images became more affordable to the public than handmade portraits had been. This time period also witnessed severe infant mortality and disease rates; the intersection of technology and death led to the development of post-mortem photography, or images centered around or including deceased subjects like the image above, as the daguerreotypes’ need for stillness easily adapted to the immobility of the deceased subject, and for several middle class families it was perfectly normal to take photos of dead relatives in coffins and on laps. While taking these photos was not a happy event, the practice provided a good deal of comfort and closure to the still living family members of the subjects.
Post-mortem photography became a way for families to cope with the deaths of infants and children, to provide themselves with some tangible memory of the deceased's existence. Even more so, it allowed the friends and family of the deceased to remember their loved ones as they appeared in the image instead of picturing the effects of decomposition upon the body. While the practice of post-mortem photography is far less common in the modern world than it was in the 19th century, forms of it continue among several religions, and a few websites exist to collect the images of stillborn children in the laps of parents.
However, those religious practices and internet sites are far from the norm of modern attitudes toward death and photography. In contrast to the proliferation of post-mortem imagery during the Victorian Era, photos of corpses today are considered taboo by many. When photos of the dead are taken and shown, the viewer is frequently forewarned of their presence. Corpse photography is taboo now because the image of the corpse is an eternal reminder of the loss of the person; to know and understand that they are and always will be gone. When images of the corpse do become public, they are unfailingly arresting. Whatever their context, whatever their scenery, they become an overwhelming reminder of death, loss, and an undeniable statement that this has happened.
In most modern cultures, photography has become some sort of defense against death. Funeral services and obituaries frequently feature images of the memorialized in their prime, and images of deceased relatives adorn the walls and tables of countless homes. Rather than commemorating the moment of death, these photos hold onto memories of life; much like in popular depictions of the afterlife the souls beyond the mortal coil often appear anywhere between their twenties and fifties, instead of as the dessicated withered bodies they had when they died of old age.
In his 2008 book, Library of Dust, photographer David Maisel presents images of a collection of over 3000 copper cans, where the ashes of inmates of asylums whose remains were never claimed have been kept for decades. Maisel’s photos, and those of other artists undertaking similar endeavors, walk the circuitous and complicated grounds between art and death. The images of Library of Dust simultaneously capture the vestiges of human lives that were so close to being erased, but at the same time the photos can only capture the fact that these lives were on the verge of being forgotten. The photos mark them by their death, by their stillness, and by their anonymity.
When I think of my grandfather, I see the picture of a young man resting on the bank of a river, a forest of dark hair exposed on his shirtless chest, the cuffs of his faded mustard pants rolled up past his ankles, and a small golden talisman hanging from his neck as he stares out at the world beyond the camera lens. It’s hard for me to reconcile this moment of existence with the stories I was told about the grizzled young man who fought island-to-island in the Pacific, and who spent the rest of his life behind a counter to support his family, long into the night, every night of the week. Whoever was there on the river bank is no longer present, already faded into dust, but when I look at the picture, it becomes a moment of eternal present; always occurring, always staring off into the distance as the water and wind brushes by him.