The technologies may change, but the desire – to reach out, once more, and touch a loved one – remains eternal.
A gorgeous raven book with shiny gold etching, Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Mourning Photography from The Thanatos Archive, is an aesthetic treasure. Its inside tells a different story, however, as some squeamish humans might find the images it contains to be wholly arresting. And they are- most of the people photographed in this book were photographed dead. In some of the photographs, you can glimpse the rolled back eyes; the limp hands; the dribble of seepage trailing out of the mouths.
In some of the photographs, you can see a look of peace; a loving embrace; what looks to be a short repose.
This is death, in all of its sorrow and all of its beauty.
This is something that we, as a culture, are not accustomed to, and it can seem jarring. Some might even say distasteful. I would disagree, and so would the Victorians; post mortem photography was a sacred part of their mourning process.
The Angel of Death is present in nefarious ways in our current culture; before we say the Victorian practices are “odd” or “strange,” let’s first take a look at how we, as a culture, examine death.
Easy – we don’t. At least, not really. Not in a thoughtful way, for the most part. I’d argue that our views of death are more pornographic. Marion Peck offers a sobering view of this in the preface to Beyond the Dark Veil:
Though the natural emotions associated with death are repressed [in our modern society], images of death emerge in our culture with ever increasing strength, frequency, and ferocity, repeating endlessly and ever more graphically in television shows, video games, and the movies. Our horror movies need always to be more appalling, our video games more violent, our Halloween decorations more disgustingly grotesque, to penetrate the numbness of our denial.
We may look at a respectful photograph of a Victorian mother holding her dead child and feel repulsed, yet we are inundated with ghastly images – even distasteful gifs – of modern dead, daily on our social media feeds. We might even go so far as to share an image of a dead stranger – something the Victorians did not do – without so much of a thought as to who that person was and who is mourning them.
Where is our outrage?
Why did our predecessors handle death with beauty and grace, and we modern folk constantly repress it?
The Victorian Way of Mourning
A few important things were in place that allowed for Victorian mourning customs and ephemera to emerge and thrive:
-The invention and democratization of photography (but also – its novelty)
-The emergence of the Middle Class
-The intimacy of knowing death
-The absence of major world wars
The Democratization of Photography
Had photography not been democratized, there would be no treasure trove of post mortem photographs, such as those contained in BTDV; from their plentitude and vast differences, especially in class, it is clear that this practice was widespread, and not limited to one particular group of people. Rich and poor; white, black, and latino; country folk and city folk – all commemorated their loved ones with post mortem photographs.
As the technology advanced, and as a new Middle Class emerged with money in their pockets, post mortem photography became an affordable, accessible means of honoring one’s dead. Prior to this, only rich families could have afforded to memorialize their dead through painted portraitures. These paintings were expensive, as painters were known to charge almost double the amount for a subject who was already deceased.
That said, photography was still a relatively new phenomenon during the height of post mortem photography. As such, photographs were not prevalent, and often, if a family had little funds for frivolous items, a post mortem photograph was the only photograph of an individual taken in his or her entire lifetime.
The New Middle Class
As aforementioned, the new class – the Middle Class – allowed the traditions of Victorian mourning to thrive. No longer were rituals just reserved for the rich; even the poor could afford a mourning photograph. The Middle Class allowed all of the customs we associate with Victorian mourning to flourish: raven dress, mourning jewelry derived from the deceased’s hair, mourning cards, and elaborate funeral celebrations and processions. Rather than just be reserved for the rich, these customs were integrated with widespread culture.
The Intimacy of Knowing Death
The Victorians were intimately acquainted with death in a way that we modern folk are not. The Angel of Death was a stark and well-known presence in their lives; those of us who now live in privileged societies have “antibiotics, vaccines, and better sanitation,” all of which have significantly lengthened our lifespans. For the Victorians, 40 years old was ancient. Time on Earth was short.
But it was not always sweet – “death wasn’t necessarily terrifying for the Victorians,” says Bess Lovejoy, in her essay “Mourning as Memory” that follows the Crime, Murder, and Tragedy section of BTDV. “The end was often seen as a relief from the sorrows of the world, and a chance to be reunited with family members who had gone before.”
Child and infant death was also widespread in the Victorian Era. Even for rich families, the certainty of a child making it to adulthood was unknown. “Gravestones from the eighteenth century demonstrate that infants were often called ‘babe’ or ‘child’ for at least twelve months, due to high infant mortality rates.” Death was such a certainty, that it could – and often did – arrive before an identity was formed.
BTDV dedicates an entire chapter to children and infant post mortem photographs. And though, at first glance, these photographs seem anathema to us, they were taken and arranged with care, precision, and love. A sibling poses with her departed counterpart. Two dead siblings accompany one another in the same casket – both victims of a contagious disease that ravaged their household. A father holds onto his daughter who has gone to her eternal rest. A mother cradles her infant, sometimes even composing a poem to say goodbye to her babe:
A Mother to Her Dying Child
Sleep on, thou little Angel one,
Sleep on, thou little dove;
For a mother’s heart beats mournfully
Over her dying love.
A longer and a sweet repose
Awaits thee, sinless one; –
I’m lulling thee to a soft sleep,
As I have often done.
A longer sleep will soon be thine,
Among the Autumn flowers;
A sweeter song than fairies sing,
Away in seraph bowers.
Oh! I love thee well, thou beautiful,
And must my darling die?
Yet the purest and the fairest,
In earth will soonest lie.
Sleep on, though little Angel one,
Sleep on, thou little dove,
For a mother’s heart beats mournfully
Over her dying love.
The Absence of Major World Wars
The widespread Victorian mourning customs came to a close with World War I. Bess Lovejoy outlines a few reasons for this: namely, there was too much grief to go around. It would not help the morale of a nation to have every single citizen dress in black in honor of those lost. Secondly, soldiers were killed by the masses, and were buried as such – in mass graves. There was no opportunity for a family to hold the lavish funeral parties and rituals that they were accustomed to having, and so they more or less suffered their grief in silence, beside their suffering neighbors.
Sometimes we think we live in a more violent, dangerous world than there ever was before. I’m not sure this is true, for the Victorians were just as shocked and riveted by tragedy. Americans saw the assassinations of two presidents in less than two decades (Lincoln and Garfield), and then plunged straight into the horrors of World War I. But perhaps they had a better relationship with death, and this allowed them to assuage their grief, rather than let themselves be overcome by it or live in fear of it.
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My hope is that you will give this book a chance, to see the beauty in death that it offers. For life would cease to be sacred without its dark shadow, and examining it through the lens of the Victorians, who knew this shadow well, and who even embraced her, is a good start to accepting our own mortality.