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“Surrounded by Flowers” (1860), quarter-plate ambrotype, hand colored, 4.75″ x 3.75,” a postmortem photograph of a young boy in a burial gown (courtesy Thanatos Archive)

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.

Cover of ‘Beyond the Dark Veil’ (courtesy Last Gasp)

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.

Pages from ‘Beyond the Dark Veil’ (courtesy Last Gasp)

Pages from ‘Beyond the Dark Veil,’ with the photos on the right showing mothers hidden beneath black blankets, holding their deceased children (courtesy Last Gasp)

“Sisters’ Bond” (1870), cabinet card, 6.5″ x 4.25,” with a young women kneeling at the side of a deceased child, possibly her sister (courtesy Thanatos Archive) (click to enlarge)

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.

“The Twins” (1852), sixth-plate daguerreotype, 3.75″ x 3.25,” where a woman holds two infants, one living and the other dead (courtesy Thanatos Archive)

“Poor Frank!” (1886), tintype, 4″ x 2.75″ (courtesy Thanatos Archive)

“Lost Companion,” h-plate daguerreotype, 3.75″ x 3.25.” The owner’s hand is over his heart in mourning for his spaniel. (courtesy Thanatos Archive)

“Levina Mann at Husband’s Grave” (1900), gelatin silver print, 12″ x 10.” The woman is holding a portrait of her late husband by their shared grave in Mount Gilead, Ohio. (courtesy Thanatos Archive)

Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Mourning Photography from The Thanatos Archive by Jack Mord is out now from Last Gasp Publishing.

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

6 replies on “The Lost Ritual of Photographing the Dead”

  1. Interesting book. Thanks for the article. I have many Last Gasp comix from the golden age. As a social documentary photog I take photos of nearly everything under the sun, but I never wanted to take photos of my dead mom or dad. I guess it never interested me in seeing them dead again. I’m glad others didn’t feel that way and shared some history with us.

  2. Nine years ago, I photographed the last three days of my dad’s life. After he drew his last breath and everyone left the room, I went back in and made some death portraits. As I was photographing I realized that he suddenly went from being my dad to a body, frozen with the last expression he ever made. A tortured one it was.

    I continued to document his removal from his home, resting in the casket and being placed into the crypt.

    All in all I made several hundred photographs of his last three days. Looked at then once briefly nine years ago and cannot bring myself to look at them again. Really don’t have a reason to I guess…

  3. My grandfather was a photographer, and I accompanied him many times when he was engaged to photograph them for their family members. I was a little girl, but I remember it very vividly.

  4. Seems so strange to many of us, brought up with a fear of facing death until it stares us in the face, but makes so much sense for that time, when they actually named a room in the house (sitting room) for the purpose of having family bodies on display for visitors prior to burial. Seeing a dead body would have been quite common, so getting a idealized memento for relatively low cost in a practical time frame just seems prudent.

  5. In the Hyperallergic review, “The Lost Ritual of Photographing the Dead’” of Jack Mord’s book, Beyond the Dark, the reviewer, Alison Meier unfortunately
    perpetuates the false notion that Post-Mortem photography is a “lost rite.”
    Mord is the owner of Thanatos Archive, a remarkable collection of post-mortem
    and mourning photographs. In 2013, Jacqueline Ann Bunge Barger curated an exhibit from this collection at Cal State Fullerton and co-authored an essay with Mord in this book. Apparently Meier, Mord and Barger are unfamiliar with the readily
    available literature on this subject including my 1995 book, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Cambridge: MIT Press. The practice of photographing the dead never disappeared. When the technology that
    allowed almost everyone to be a photographer became readily available,
    professional photographers were no longer commissioned to take these photos,
    the grieving families did it themselves. Since the advent of smart cell phones with built-in cameras, the practice has, if anything, become more frequent. It is unfortunate that these authors are unfamiliar with a readily available literature.

    Jay Ruby,PhD
    Emeritus Professor
    Temple University

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