Death in the old town
Today outside of certain professions, it is rare for people to actually encounter death. It normally happens quietly in a hospital with family and loved ones being told after the event. However, only a century or so ago, things were very different. Despite all of the medical and technological advances of the Victorian era, the population was still very much surrounded by death. Infant mortality was incredibly high, while life expectancy, especially in some major cities was frightfully low. On top of this, most people died in their homes, often the home they were born in, often the same home where they watched their parents die. It was natural not only to see death, but also to see the full decline of someone towards death.
The mourning process was strictly kept in Victorian times. A wreath of or boxwood tied with crape or black veiling was hung on the front door to alert passersby that a death had occurred. The body was watched over every minute until burial, hence the custom of "waking". The wake also served as a safeguard from burying someone who was not dead, but in a coma. Many families would host wakes in their homes for up to four days and the tradition of bringing fresh flowers to funerals stemmed from a time before embalming. Flowers were a way of masking the odor of the decaying corpse. Caskets were often placed on a cooling board which resembled a tub or crate of ice under the body to slow down the decaying process. Clocks were stopped at the time of death and mirrors were either draped with black cloth or turned to the wall so the spirit of the deceased could not get caught in them. The dead were carried out of the house feet first, in order to prevent the spirit from looking back into the house and beckoning another member of the family to follow him.
In the Victorian era, the infant mortality rate was high and in fact, life expectancy in general was far less than it is today. Parents may not have had their child photographed while they were alive. In the event of a sudden death, the family would have rushed the body along to photographers to have a photograph taken as a reminder of their child.Some of these photographs were tastefully done showing the obviously deceased child laying on a bed surrounded by flowers and apparently asleep. However if the family did not have a photograph of their child or family member while they were alive, they would instruct the photographer to give the impression that the deceased was still alive at the time of the photograph.
One of the first parts of the body to deteriorate after death are the eyes and many photographers became experts at painting false eyes on to closed eyelids. Some photographers were more skilled than others at this macabre task.
When the deceased were older, much greater ingenuity was used to give the impression that they were alive in the photograph. Frames were built to support the deceased and supporting rods would be inserted through the back of their clothing.
These photographs were a common aspect of American culture, a part of the mourning and memorialization process.
Surviving families were proud of these images and hung them in their homes, sent copies to friends and relatives, wore them as lockets or carried them as pocket mirrors. Nineteenth-century Americans knew how to respond to these images. Today there is no culturally normative response to post-mortem photographs.
Postmortem photos as an historical and cultural grieving ritual (By Pale Angel)
I believe in preserving memories and always have a piece of the person who died, something that makes you feel closer to him or her. For me, that piece can be a photograph. Nowadays, people seem to be more detached to death than in previous centuries. Are people more afraid of death than before?
I can't tell when was the exact point where people became detached to death, what I mean is that the grieving ritual seemed to be a task that must be done as soon as possible so, as some say, to avoid more pain to the family. But the dead is already dead and some people, few this days, wish to spend as much time as possible with the deceased before they say their final goodbye ....to the body at least.
I would respect any family decision to take post-mortem photography if they wish, but I understand also how that kind of photography is not as necessary as it use to be. With the arrival of the Kodak cameras, which made possible for anyone to take their own pictures, many people probably considered easy to take pictures by themselves. Moving quickly in time; the axes to photography became easy and common. I guess having so many photos of the deceased during his or her life made it unnecessary to take pictures when they were dead.
Lets not forget that before photography, the Royalty and people with money were the only ones that could afford a painting of the alive or the dead. When the photography was discovered, very few people could afford this new service, but they made an exception for their family when they pass away. Not all of the Post-Mortem photos are of the deceased alone in the shot, some used to take photos of a family reunion on a garden, table or in the living room.
Private mortuary pictures could fit into three possible categories according to how they portrayed the subject:
-Simulating life: in an attempt to simulate the life of the deceased's photographed with her eyes open and posing as if it were a common with their families, it is difficult to tell which is the dead person and that not have any movement out very sharp in the image and not their families, samples will be used to touch up by hand using paint eyes on the eyelids closed.
-Pretending to be asleep: usually done with children, making them as if they were resting, in a sweet dream, that they are supposed to wake up. In some cases parents held them as coined to bring naturalness to the jack.
-Without simulating nothing: they are photographed on the deathbed, in this kind of footage something was an ornamental flowers, which were absent in the rest of the post mortem photographs, commonly such photographs are were also took with children.