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I See Dead People
October 17, 2006 11:28 AM   Subscribe

I see dead people — Victorian post-mortem photographs. (via boingboing)
posted by spock (41 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
See also: "The LAST LOOK" POST-MORTEM PHOTOGRAPHY IN EUROPE and Photographic Memories from Morbid Outlook.
posted by spock at 11:32 AM on October 17, 2006


that girl who is SITTING is really creeping me out. and the note about how it's 9 days after her death and her mother just couldn't part with her. shudder.
posted by timory at 11:43 AM on October 17, 2006


and the whole families posing for portraits? i don't understand. are they all dead?
posted by timory at 11:45 AM on October 17, 2006


Beautiful and more than a little creepy.
posted by arcticwoman at 11:45 AM on October 17, 2006


The one sitting up 9 days after death was very creepy.

Other than that most of them were very sad as they were of infants/kids.
posted by Bqaggie87 at 11:51 AM on October 17, 2006


Some of them don't look dead.

And it's the looks on the faces of the living that get to me.
posted by orange swan at 11:55 AM on October 17, 2006


Previous post mortem photography on MeFi.
posted by languagehat at 12:02 PM on October 17, 2006


Wow, some of them are actually beautiful -- like a Pieta.
posted by footnote at 12:04 PM on October 17, 2006


Pieta, by the way.
posted by footnote at 12:05 PM on October 17, 2006


They're hot because they're cold.
posted by CynicalKnight at 12:07 PM on October 17, 2006


Why is Abraham Lincoln in all of these pictures?
posted by spicynuts at 12:08 PM on October 17, 2006


I have a grisly question to ask. In the picture of the girl sitting up 9 days after death, how did they get her eyes to look in the same direction?
posted by Pastabagel at 12:08 PM on October 17, 2006


Where is this picture of a girl sitting up 9 days after death? I looked through the links, but can't find any notes in the first link, and can't see a girl sitting up in the other two.
posted by arcticwoman at 12:15 PM on October 17, 2006


What a macabre way to memorialize a loved one.
posted by aliasless at 12:20 PM on October 17, 2006


Um...

Girl sitting up

I wonder why this practice died out...(I'm assuming/hoping that it did)
posted by Pastabagel at 12:22 PM on October 17, 2006


Thanks Pastabagel. Wow. I don't know how that makes me feel. Wierd and... sad.
posted by arcticwoman at 12:26 PM on October 17, 2006


I find it really hard to believe that girl's corpse is nine days past mortem.
posted by orange swan at 12:29 PM on October 17, 2006


I think a more interesting question is why we react the way we do. In some ways, I think our culture has moved farther away from accepting/understanding death as a part of life. Each culture ritualizes death. Ours seems more uncomfortable with grief and death than times past.
posted by spock at 12:34 PM on October 17, 2006


I briefly worked in a hospice and people die with their eyes open more than they do closed. Sometimes in those last moments people open their eyes slightly - like a subtle involuntary reflex. Unless someone closes them, they stay that way.

If anything these pictures help illustrate what a strange and uncomfortable attitude we as a culture sometimes have towards death and how to handle it. When these were taken, there wasn't the advances in medicine to "fight" disease so people died earlier and faster. The families washed the bodies in their homes - they were comfortable with the body being there. It was part of their grieving process.

Now people are often distance from death in some ways. The body is taken away somewhere else, preserved, and our formal grieving process has changed. I don't know if it's better or not, but there is an attitude that death cheats the living, instead of it being a more integrated part of life.

Oh preview - a lot of what spock says.
posted by dog food sugar at 12:40 PM on October 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


I completely agree with spock and dog food sugar, our reactions to these photos tells us a lot about ourselves. I try to imagine how comfortable/uncomfortable I would be with a dead family member's body in my house, or with a post-mortem photo of a dead family member, and it really gives me the heebie-jeebies. I have never had to deal with death that intimately, though. The only body I have ever seen was that of a stranger, at a funeral I was invited to for cultural reasons. Otherwise, my experiences with death have been distanced and sterile.

When I became a vegetarian, one of my reasons was that I could only eat meat if I carefully did not associate it with the animal it came from. I was so used to meat coming pre-cut, pre-wrapped in sterile pre-measured trays that I felt I was doing disrespect to the animals and the life that put it there. I was fooling myself, in a way, into thinking that meat was unconnected with life. I eat meat again, and I still don't think I could be a butcher, but I have come to terms with it and I fell better about how I fit in to the whole cycle. I think that distancing ourselves from our own deaths is also unhealthy. Yes we die, yes we leave behind bodies that look an awfully lot like they did when we were alive. Pretending that it doesn't happen or that it is always clean and pretty and sterile won't make it so.
posted by arcticwoman at 12:51 PM on October 17, 2006


In some ways, I think our culture has moved farther away from accepting/understanding death as a part of life. Each culture ritualizes death. Ours seems more uncomfortable with grief and death than times past.

And I'd say that's a good thing. Until 100 years ago, people experienced death frequently - and early - so they had another relationship with it. You don't need to visit more than one Victorian cemetary to see how many children - and young women who died in childbirth - are buried there.

But those photos are creepy fetish weird.
posted by three blind mice at 1:27 PM on October 17, 2006


Until 100 years ago, people experienced death frequently. . .

I'd say the percentage of humans who experience death has always remained fairly constant at 100% (but point taken).
posted by spock at 1:39 PM on October 17, 2006


That picture of the dead baby on the first page just sent shivers up my spine. I've got a one year old at home. I just can't imagine that...
posted by WinnipegDragon at 1:43 PM on October 17, 2006


Err, dead babies that is. I can't look at any more.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 1:44 PM on October 17, 2006


grateful dead (this is a photo the dead used for a program (?) for Woodstock.)
posted by crunchland at 1:54 PM on October 17, 2006


In some ways, I think our culture has moved farther away from accepting/understanding death as a part of life

Thomas Lynch is a poet and undertaker, and his great book The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade talks about that:
The homes were large to house multiple births and generations. These were households in which, just as babies were being birthed, grandparents were aging upstairs with chicken soup and doctors' home visits until, alas, they died and were taken downstairs to the same room the babies were christened in to get what was called then "laid out."...The room in which grandparents were waked and new babies were baptized and love was proffered and contracted--the parlor.

Half a century, two world wars, and the New Deal later, homes got smaller and garages got bigger as we moved these big events out of the house. The emphasis shifted from stability to mobility. The architecture of the family and the homes they lived in changed forever by invention and intervention and by the niggling sense that such things didn't belong in the house.
...
Elders grew aged and sickly not upstairs in their own beds, but in a series of institutional venues: rest homes, nursing homes hospital wards, sanitoria...And having lived their lives and died their deaths outside the home, they were taken to be laid out, not in the family parlor but to the funeral parlor, where the building was outfitted to look like the family parlors gone forever, busy with overstuffed furniture, knickknacks, draperies, and the dead.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:19 PM on October 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


In addition to the different approach to death in those days, they weren't so used to photographs being around either. Now we see so many photographic images - then they occasionally saw those tin-type images on a small piece of metal, often in some beautiful ornate frame that closed with a delicate clasp. Or all the families pictures on their deaths were kept in the same well-crafted and ornate photo album.

I could see how they could be comforting. It was an acceptable practice to have these photos done. If they could look into the future they would probably think how weird and creepy it is that we smile so much in photographs.
posted by dog food sugar at 2:36 PM on October 17, 2006


True. Up until the 19th century, any bedroom you slept in was a room in which someone had died. Now, houses are usually torn down after about 20 years, at least in America. So as creepy as these things are, IMO, I can see how in some ways there's was a healthier approach to death than our contemporary culture's. At least they didn't try to hide it, as we do now.
posted by bardic at 2:39 PM on October 17, 2006


So many dead children. I try to imagine how it must have been for the parents to sit and hold their dead child and try to reamin expressionless for the photograph and it just breaks my heart.
posted by LeeJay at 3:16 PM on October 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


These are fascinating. This one in particular is just amazing in terms of the story it tells, and the emotions it contains. The look on the man's face, the way he's holding the baby's hand so gently with his fingers.

There are some really beautiful pictures in here, not just because I find this a particularly lovely and respectful way to immortalize people, but because they're actually beautiful photographs from an artistic standpoint (just look at how much you can read in this boy's face). I definitely find some of the open-eyed pictures more than a little creepy, mind you (including the ones of groups of people where it takes you a minute to figure out which one's the goner).

I agree that this was probably a very healthy way to approach death. During my labour and delivery stint in nursing school, the ward I was on had a policy of photographing every stillborn child (which is fairly common), and making the parents aware that there was a photograph should they ever want it. Many parents said no or were repulsed at first, but an extraordinary number would call sometimes years later to ask if we still had the picture and if they could have it (we did, and they could). How much nicer it would be to have a picture like one of these, than a fading Polaroid snapshot.
posted by biscotti at 3:47 PM on October 17, 2006


(just look at how much you can read in this boy's face)

That's the one that disturbs me, his grief and confusion are so apparent. He appears to have lost his twin, or at the very least a very close sibling, the poor kid.

We have made death a monster or a total stranger, we don't deal with it in the same way at all. Nowadays if you took a portrait of, or with, your recently deceased loved one they'd cart you off in a backwards blouse.
posted by zarah at 4:11 PM on October 17, 2006


Rick Santorum.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 4:28 PM on October 17, 2006


Such sadness and beauty at the same time. The infants and toddlers just cripple me, though. Made the mistake of looking at the Boing Boing link today at work. Had to leave and take a walk around the neighborhood for a half hour or so.
posted by jalexei at 6:22 PM on October 17, 2006


I think our culture has moved farther away from accepting/understanding death as a part of life.


True that.
My mom still has - and uses - an iron board that, when my grandmother was a child, was used as a catafalque for an infant. There's scorch marks on the wood from where the candles surrounding the baby's corpse melted down.
Stunning photos, just heartbreaking, inspiring... they invoke so many feelings and thoughts in one look.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:38 PM on October 17, 2006


*ironing board, rather.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:39 PM on October 17, 2006


Up until the 19th century, any bedroom you slept in was a room in which someone had died

Or born.

Next time you're in a large Victorian-era home, look for the "coffin corner" on the stairway landing - a 3x3 niche on the stairway switchback, or landing. Now there's probably a vase or other knick-knack there, but people used the cutout to help get the coffin up and down the stairs where the corner was otherwise too tight to negotiate.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:44 PM on October 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


In the area I grew up in, I saw many African-American families take pictures of the dead relative in thier coffins. I also saw many pictures with family surrounding the coffin.
posted by SuzySmith at 11:16 PM on October 17, 2006


I don't mean to derail but I have a personal story to add and I hope its not to inappropriate.

My father died two years ago this December. It was a suprise to all of us and my mother and I were there when it happened. Having the body in the home was okay (it was probably under an hour) and I honestly feel it would have been okay for a while longer. It was dad, you know? He could have been sleeping. I made sure I gave myself no illusions about what he was, but really, he was everything he was before...just without electricity firing through those neurons. I almost felt comfortable with him.

What I did not feel comfortable with was watching the process. I expected a lot of...nothing...at the moment of death. A rattle, a sigh. What I didn't expect was the look of terror in the eyes before hand. I heard once that when drowning, the brain takes even the oxygen under the fingernails. What's the brain thinking about at those moments?

I think we are very isolated from death, and I can't help but think that's a big part of our culture. I had had years to come to terms with the loss of a parent and I believe I did. But seeing just how quickly death takes us and how we have no say in it even if life is getting too long, well that has to have an effect on us. Maybe someone should do a study.
posted by Brainy at 12:29 AM on October 18, 2006


I'm not being facetious, but the study has been going on for some time. It is called philosophy.
posted by ewkpates at 3:14 AM on October 18, 2006


Brainy thanks so much for your perspective.
posted by dog food sugar at 9:02 AM on October 18, 2006


I remember a post-mortem collection of daguerreotypes and photographs at the Getty 6 or 7 years ago and as I walked past all the pictures I just kept thinking about all the heartbreak memorialized; husbands, wives, children, parents, every picture representing a river of tears, an abyss of sorrow.

I wonder why this practice died out...(I'm assuming/hoping that it did)
posted by Pastabagel at 3:22 PM EST on October 17 [+]

When my son died the day after he was born the hospital asked if we wanted a picture taken. I said no, but they took one anyway and I'm now glad they did. It is the only picture we have of him.

My mother has pictures of her father in his coffin (he died in 1952) and she says the photographs make her uncomfortable, but I notice she has never thrown them out.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:15 AM on October 18, 2006


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