Despite the current ubiquity of cameras, we rarely pause in our flurry of social media sharing to document one of the most significant events in all our lives: death. Back in the 19th century, when camera technology became publicly available, documenting loved ones on their death beds or even after death was not uncommon. Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Mourning Photography from The Thanatos Archive by Jack Mord, released in December by Last Gasp Publishing, gathers 120 photographs from this lost rite of 19th and early 20th century United States and Europe.
Mord is founder and curator of the Woodinville, Washington-based Thanatos Archive, which since 2002 has acted as a digital archive of mourning photography. As he explains in a book essay, cowritten by Jacqueline Ann Bunge Barger who curated the 2013 Beyond the Dark Veil exhibition at California State University, Fullerton, the photographs “served as a vital part of a healthy grieving process, providing a tangible way to keep the memory of a departed loved one alive and close at hand in times of need; displayed in parlors and in family photo albums, side by side with photos of the living.”
Embossed with gold lettering, the volume appears like an old photo album. Sections focus on themes like “pre-mortem/deathbed,” where sickly figures are often surrounded by flowers as if already in their caskets; “crime/murder/tragedy,” where a family of three appears serenely resting in one coffin, after the wife killed her husband, young child, and herself when she suspected her husband of adultery; and even “pets.”
“Neither death rites nor cultural portraiture could flourish until the Industrial Revolution fostered public expressions of individual worth and benevolent nature,” writer Joe Smoke explains in an essay. “Two concrete testaments to this sociological shift were the immediate naming of infants and the personification of pets.” He notes that in the 18th century, gravestones often just read “child” or “babe.” No one who died under a year got a name.
In some photographs, “hidden mothers” cradle their deceased children through black cloth, appearing eerily like ghosts transporting the departed young. Other children and adults are posed so meticulously that without the swelling of hands or dripping of blood from a nose or mouth, you might think they were alive.
Author Bess Lovejoy notes in another book essay that it was “the mass casualties of World War I — thirty-seven million dead — that sounded the death knell for Victorian mourning customs.” While the huge casualties of the 19th-century Civil War had thrown the United States into a passionate mourning, the first majorly brutal war of the 20th century encouraged more of a stiff upper lip. As for our mourning today, Lovejoy writes: “Memory is digital, not material. Grief is individual, not communal.”
Postmortem photography hasn’t entirely disappeared. Photographers still work on the banks of the Ganges, taking last shots of people before they’re consumed by flames, and some parents have portraits made of their stillborn children — the images, like many for the parents of the 19th century, are the only photographs parents will have of this person. What seems macabre now was at its core an act of remembrance and keeping the memory of that person’s face, even decayed or diseased, present.
Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Mourning Photography from The Thanatos Archive by Jack Mord is out now from Last Gasp Publishing.