Memento Mori
June 8, 2006 8:34 AM   Subscribe

Memento Mori : both in Europe and The United States, post-mortem photography [pdf] was both reminder of and coping mechanism for death in the 19th century.
posted by grapefruitmoon (11 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Cool, the Spirit photography link on that first page is also pretty neat.
posted by OmieWise at 8:42 AM on June 8, 2006

Along the same lines earlier
posted by lloyder at 8:50 AM on June 8, 2006

lloyder: Yeah, that post inspired this one.

Only, this one is about the history of death-photography and not about anything current. There's no real overlap except that they're all dead.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 9:03 AM on June 8, 2006

We have a photo of my wife's grandfather and great aunt as children standing next to the open casket of her great-grandfather. It's pretty creepy.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:09 AM on June 8, 2006

Maybe, somehow, at least in Japan, the new tech applied to an older medium: Death Poems
posted by notyou at 9:13 AM on June 8, 2006

I love the multiple printing ones, where a dead relative is added to current family portrait. (A perfectly Photoshopped modern equivalent would be terrifying, but the obvious and deliberate addition is sweet.)
posted by jack_mo at 10:55 AM on June 8, 2006

An unusual practice, put to rather good (and creepy) use in this film.
posted by QuietDesperation at 11:15 AM on June 8, 2006

Another side of memento mori: Buddhism, especially Tibetan, puts a strong influence on death, occasionally to the point of studying corpses and pictures of corpses to be comfortable around death. (Seeing a corpse was one of the four sights that got Gautama Buddha to take on the life of an ascetic, which got the whole ball rolling, too.)
posted by mendel at 1:23 PM on June 8, 2006

For those interested in the social/anthropological aspects of the funerary photography, check out Jay Ruby's book Secure the Shadow:
Sometimes thought to be a bizarre Victorian custom, photographing corpses has been and continues to be an important, if not recognized, occurrence in American life. It is a photographic activity, like the erotica produced in middle-class homes by married couples, that many privately practice but seldom circulate outside the trusted circle of close friends and relatives. Along with tombstones, funeral cards, and other images of death, these photographs represent one way in which Americans have attempted to secure their shadows.

Ruby employs newspaper accounts, advertisements, letters, photographers' account books, interviews, and other material to determine why and how photography and death became intertwined in the nineteenth century. He traces this century's struggle between America's public denial of death and a deeply felt private need to use pictures of those we love to mourn their loss. Americans take and use photographs of dead relatives and friends in spite of and not because of society's expectation about the propriety of these means. Ruby compares photographs and other pictorial media of death, founding his interpretations on the discovery of patterns in the appearance of the images and a reconstruction of the conditions of their production and utilization. (from the Amazon review)
posted by illovich at 2:10 PM on June 8, 2006

Thanks for the post grapefruitmoon. The whole subject of death is an interesting one to think about. It seems that grieving has been embarassing for most of the world. Or maybe the embarassment is a cover for the fear of death? Whatever it is, death doesn't get talked about much, either for the soon to die or as an experience for those around the dead person, how they cope.

I liked that those photographs were not about shock or horror, no scandal about death itself. Just simple, caring.

The Victorians seemed to latch onto the death subject, made a whole biz out of it with jet and hair jewelry. Weird but extraordinarily delicate workmanship.

I wish there were more discussions in the West about how one copes with/faces one's own upcoming death and that of others, that it could be seen as an acceptable conversation, not morbid. I think it's important to see those pictures of dead people, to know how it looks, to contemplate one's own and others' impermanence.

One of the things I like about Buddhism is that it faces death squarely, the process of it. I like the description of the different 'elements' rolling up in Chogyam Trungpa's and Francesca Fremantle's version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The daughter of a friend of mine told me recently about her mother's process of dying and it sounded like the stages matched that book.

There is an interesting Tibetan Buddhist meditation called "chöd", in which one goes to a cemetary or 'charnel ground' (where bodies are cremated outdoors), imagines so intensely feeding one's body to animals as a karmic payback, that one screams in fear, while imagining one's lifeforce making an exit through the top of one's skull. When I lived in India in a Tibetan refugee settlement, there was a yogi who did his chöd practice at night in the sal forest behind the room I rented. He would howl, jackals would imitate him with yeowls and yips, then hyenas would bark their raunchy laughter. I'd sit bolt upright in bed with the hairs on my neck all raised, half amused and half horrified.

Thanks illovich for that link. I've always respected the kind and brave work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
posted by nickyskye at 3:52 PM on June 8, 2006

This thread is right up my alley, thank you grapefruitmoon. I have always had a morbid streak-love visiting old cemeteries, reading old tombstones, etc. Funny how many people get squicked by the idea of death. In my family, we have a photo of a five year old boy, who was my great-great uncle. He's posed as if he were sleeping (late 1890's) and was my maternal grandmother's uncle. There's nothing wrong with mortuary photography. The one photo of the woman with her eyes "open" is possibly an example of painted eyes. Morticians or photographers would paint the eyelids to make them look open, sometimes well done, sometimes freakish. Thanks for all the links to my new favorite pages!
posted by annieb at 5:15 PM on June 8, 2006

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