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Post Mortem Photography: Memorializing of the Victorian Dead
Today, more photos are taken every 24 hours than were taken during the entire 100 years of the 19th Century combined. So it's hard to imagine the mindset of these families as they pose alongside their dead kin. At least at first. Let's strip back the digital age of selfies and panoramas and look at this through Victorian Eyes. Imagine, the earliest craze in the history of the medium, almost as common as the 'selfie' is today. In the early days, post modem photography flourished.
1839 marked the inaugural year for humanity's obsession with photography as the invention of the daguerreotype ushered in a cheap and practical way for families to take portraits. Once only the rich and famous could afford a commissioned family portrait, now just about anyone could have a a single photo taken. With a dip into the family savings, a single photograph could immortalize a particular second in time and those in it.
In the 1800s, mortality rates were astronomical, especially among children. Disease, starvation in some cases, climate all could take a person's life without warning. In a time when medicine was primitive and expensive, people of the era embraced death in ways that escape comprehension today. One of those ways was photographing the dead. Since said photo likely serves as the only record of the subject, dead or alive, it was an easy decision to make.
Some photographers became so good, some subjects were nothing short of, well, lifelike. Elaborate braces and supports were devised to prop the dead body into a variety of sitting and even standing poses. While the use of these devises have been widely debated in historical communities, the end results area nothing short of bizarre. The dead were often bathed and dressed in their best clothes. In some freaky cases, eyeballs were painted over the subject's closed eyelids to give a more lifelike appearance. Eventually as the idea of post mortem photography became more commonplace, the process became simpler and less freaky. Posed photos gave way to simple shots of the subject laying in state, a more 'normal' idea.