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Momento Mori Victorian Death Photographs

Updated on February 26, 2018

Momento Mori

Momento Mori literally means remember your mortality in Latin. Momento Mori is considered to be a genre of art that I believe probably originated during the Great Plagues of Europe.

In Victorian times, families took care of their dead before the advent of funeral homes and undertaking procedures. Living rooms are no longer called "parlors", because "parlors" were for viewing of the dead. This is a direct aversion to the twentieth century fear of death. We no longer live with our dead loved ones sleeping in the box in the living room. We no longer take pictures of our dead to remind ourselves they are gone. Its an important part of the mourning process we have lost. Its not as common to lose a baby, a young child, or a young adult with advances in medical care that began in the nineteenth century. We look at death as a failure, not a permanent sleep and a release from the pain of sickness or disease. It was more of a common thing Victorian folks and those before them dealt with at home. The grieving process was done at home, and people were not so far removed from it. A dead body was nothing to be associated with morbidity, it was a fact of life, death, that people were unafraid to deal with.

Small children were photographed with a dead family member. Parents were photographed holding their dead babies, and children. Children were gathered around their grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles to photograph their loved ones with them for the last time. Often trinkets such as lockets were fashioned with a last memory of their loved one's picture inside to remind them this person is dead and gone, in a beautiful permanent sleep away from pain or sickness, forever in a state of blissful sleep.

Photographs often portrayed their dead as just that, sleeping, or with their eyes open, fixed in a peaceful pose, as if in pensive thought or a trans, a state not here, but with us, quietly watching and waiting for the ferryman to take them down the River of Styx to the land of the dead.

Photo Gallery

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Death is Imminent

It's a Part of Life, Nothing to Fear

I write this lens with the utmost respect to those depicted in it. I think its beautiful the way the Victorian people mourned their dead. The mourned were beautifully clad in their Sunday best and remembered with great love and reverence. I don't find these pictures gross or disrespectful. I find it lovely that they were not carved up on a slab or pickled with embalming fluid, but visited, and mourned for days by their loved ones in the comfort of their own homes.

Their families could privately share their thoughts with them and say goodbye. For instance, when a child dies now during or immediately after childbirth, they are carted off within minutes, hours, or the day. These mommies could get a mental image of their babies, have them photographed in the most beautiful of ways in their best attire, and they could actually spend time looking upon their creation and adequately say goodbye without fear or regret. This is the best reverence a mother can pay to a child, or a family member or friend can privately say goodbye.

Now we make ceremonies quick, take a couple days off from work and that's that. We wonder why it takes so long to get over it. This was the healthiest of processes for all members of a family, neighborhood, or community, beautiful, not morbid.

Victorian Era Post Mortem Photography

Sleeping Beauties - Babies Forever Sleeping

My First Funeral

I Was Horrified

I think its totally unhealthy the way we mourn our dead now. I went to my first funeral with my family when somebody in my family finally died, my great grandfather, a gentle, quiet, and sweet man. I was terrified, because my whole life until I was thirteen, I had never seen a dead neighbor, relative, or anybody else for that matter being mourned, not even one. My mother didn't explain any of this to me and made me view my Gramp. I was horrified by the pancake makeup, the discoloring, and the fact that he just wasn't there, and she had not prepared me for that. Nobody had.

I am happy to see that in Victorian times children were not afraid, even the youngest of children. Everybody lived with the dead for days at a time, and viewed them at their leisure. I wasn't ready, but had merely a few hours to do so, and it was forced upon me, because it was now or never. I don't understand why we don't deal with this in the home anymore, other than the fact that everything, even death has to be commercial. What a tragedy!

Swann Galleries Auction Preview Momento Mori Photos - 19th & 20th Century Photography

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    • MaryThereseBenn profile image

      MaryThereseBenn 5 years ago


    • amyrussell profile image

      Amy 6 years ago from New England, USA

      @linhah lm: It really is unnatural and industrialized just like so many other things. It really separates us from something that's so very much part of nature and the life cycle.

    • amyrussell profile image

      Amy 6 years ago from New England, USA

      @Sensitive Fern: Thanks very much!

    • amyrussell profile image

      Amy 6 years ago from New England, USA

      @chezchazz: Awesome! Thanks!

    • chezchazz profile image

      Chazz 6 years ago from New York

      Blessed on the Squid Angels Epic Back To School Bus Trip Quest. Your lens will be featured on âWing-ing it on Squidoo,â our lensography of some of the best Squidoo has to offer, as soon as the quest has been completed.

    • linhah lm profile image

      Linda Hahn 7 years ago from California

      I agree that modern time rituals aren't quite enough. Death is part of life and avoiding it is not healthy.

    • Sensitive Fern profile image

      Sensitive Fern 7 years ago

      Fascinating! Blessed.