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Memorial Photos, Keepsakes, and Life-like Wakes

by J. Malec

Mourning Photography

Photo credit*: Richard Mcall

Photographing the Dead and Memorial Keepsakes

Ever heard of mourning photography? Your grandparents most likely knew of it as a common practice. It wasn’t all that long ago that we routinely photographed the dead to create a memorial keepsake. Today most people find the concept distasteful.

In fact, during the Victorian era, the post-mortem photograph may well have been the only image of a loved one ever taken. Photography was expensive and not widely accessible at the time. Wearing jewelry was another popular way that the dead were remembered.

In our blog “Funeral and Cremation Jewelry,” we discuss the history of memorial jewelry that led to wearing memorial ash lockets. Queen Victoria is credited with popularizing the wearing of mourning jewelry. Today cremation necklaces and cremation lockets that hold ashes are common ways to memorialize a loved one.

But let’s investigate this once popular ritual of photographing the dead.

On his website document titledThe Social Construction of the American Daguerreotype Portrait,” author Ben Mattison discusses the custom of mourning photography

A reader paging through a collection of daguerreotypes is most surprised, perhaps, at the number of images of death. There are photographs of dead children, dead adults, of parents holding their dead children, and of groups of somber mourners gathered around coffins. What explains this custom? Why did parents, children, and spouses, grieving the dead, spend the money and take the time to have a daguerreotype made of the departed? The answer lies both in conventions and views of the daguerreotype and in the mid-nineteenth century conventions of death and its representation.

Mattison further provides this insightful explanation on how and why a photo served as a meaningful memorial.

Most simply, the death portrait, especially a picture of a dead child alone, was a memorial. If the daguerreotype served as an accurate portrait of the soul, of a person's essence, it was doubly effective, with its accuracy and haunting depth, as a way of keeping the memory of a dead child fresh, of bringing a dead child back to life.

A newly published book on the subject of memorial photography is featured on the art and design blog Hyperallergic. The article by Allison Meier discusses the book by Jack Mord titled Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Mourning Photography from The Thanatos Archive. Released in December by Last Gasp Publishing, the volume is a collection of 120 photographs of this lost ritual from 19th and early 20th century United States and Europe.

In the article, Meier quotes Jack Mord. He states that 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.”

A Memorial Service Unlike Others

This may sound like something from an episode of The Twilight Zone. A recent memorial trend, originating in Puerto Rico in 2008, is posing the dead as though he or she is alive for the memorial service. Commonly enjoyed activities of the deceased, such as sharing a beer with friends, riding a motorcycle or standing in the corner of a boxing ring, have been embraced by friends and family. This unusual practice has become a way to remember the departed as they were and not as they are after death.

In a New York Times article from a few years ago “Rite of the Sitting Dead: Funeral Poses Mimic Life,” Elsie Rodriguez, vice president of the Marín Funeral Home in San Juan, is quoted describing this peculiar funeral innovation: “This is not a fun or funny event; the family is going through a lot of pain. [With these kinds of arrangements,] the family literally suffers less, because they see their loved one in a way that would have made them happy — they see them in a way in which they still look alive.”

There are some notable similarities between the practice of memorial photography and posing the deceased for a memorial service. The two naturally go hand in hand. Posing must precede photographing, and photographing only seems natural after having posed the departed. Perhaps these new expressions of the posed memorial will bring about a revival of mourning photography. To carry it another step further, these photographs might be used to embellish cremation urns or other memorial keepsakes. Only time will tell.

J. Malec is a visual artist and writer whose work often deals with themes related to loss and healing. She lives in Minneapolis, and spends much of her time practicing permaculture in the city.

*Richard Mcall Photography: