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  #1  
Old 01-04-2004, 12:53 PM
sugaree sugaree is offline
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1800s death photographs

I finally saw The Others, and I don't think I'm giving away any plot twists by saying that the movie references the 19th century custom of photographing the recently dead. One character says something to the effect that this custom came about because they felt the picture would help the soul live on after death. I never knew this and thought that the practice existed because photography was so expensive and rare then that the bereaved would have so few, if any, pictorial mementos of the lost one in life. A photograph in death was priceless if no others existed.

Did this superstition actually exist and inspire death photography, or was it made up for the movie dialogue?

On an even more gruesome note, does anyone know if there are any online galleries of this class of photography? I tried google but got a whole lot of nasty images of autopsies and murder scenes. I'd like to view my dead washed, dressed, and propped up, please.
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  #2  
Old 01-04-2004, 01:23 PM
Reeder Reeder is offline
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http://www.cmp.ucr.edu/terminals/mem...i/default.html
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  #3  
Old 01-04-2004, 02:16 PM
tomndebb tomndebb is offline
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Quote:
One character says something to the effect that this custom came about because they felt the picture would help the soul live on after death.
Memory? Sure. Soul? I doubt it. Why would someone who grew up in a hundreds of years old tradition of a non-corporeal soul sudenly decide that chemicals on paper would help that soul last longer than the "forever" for which it was alredy destined. It sounds a bit more like the standard "those people (in other cultures or others times) had really silly beliefs that we're smart enough to laugh at."

Keeping memories alive longer with the new technology makes sense. I did not see any references to keeping the "soul" alive in Dan Meinwald's MEMENTO MORI: DEATH AND PHOTOGRAPHY IN NINETEENTH CENTURY AMERICA

I did find a reference to "spirit photographs", but the context is brief and does not really support the "keep the soul alive longer" hypothesis.
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Old 01-04-2004, 02:18 PM
tomndebb tomndebb is offline
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That'll teach me to actually read the sites when I could be posting links.
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  #5  
Old 01-04-2004, 09:04 PM
picunurse picunurse is offline
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My mother had a death picture of my older brother, who died of SIDS 6 years before I was born. I once asked about it. She told me her grandparents insisted on it. They were from a very small village in Wales.
She said they felt it "fixed him in time" I didn't get it when I was 15, and I don't get it now.
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  #6  
Old 01-04-2004, 09:37 PM
Rodd Hill Rodd Hill is offline
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I came across a very haunting example of this type of photography about a year ago. Wellington was a small coal mining company town here on Vancouver Island, run by a ruthless coal baron, and peopled mainly by Welsh, Scots and English immigrant families kept as working poor. It was the scene of increasing union strife, fueled by one of the worst safety records in Canada, and several mine disasters.

The photo is of a young child, maybe 2 or 3 years old, taken in Wellington. A photographer wasn't cheap, and it is likely that this is the only photo that was every taken on the child. The scalloped style of the matte of the cabinet photo would tend to indicate the 1880-85 period, but small town photographers tended to use out-of-style stock longer than big city studios.

The greiving parents didn't need to write their name or the child's on the back of the photo of course, so now the little one's name is lost forever.

It isn't gruesome, but is is quite heartrending; certainly the half-open eyes lend a very haunting aspect.

Wellington child
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  #7  
Old 01-04-2004, 10:16 PM
karomon karomon is offline
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The man who provided the photos you saw in "The Others" is named Stanley Burns, and he is the owner of a huge collection of death photographs. He has put together two books of these things, Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America and Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement and the Family in Memorial Photography (official site: http://www.sleepingbeauty2.com/ )

As far as I know, both books are out of print.
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  #8  
Old 01-04-2004, 10:57 PM
ratty ratty is offline
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Mortuary photography seems to have reached its zenith in the US in the late 1800's, and since that time it has fallen very much out of practice as many people consider it morbid and upsetting. This may have something to do with the trend of 'medicalizing' death in American culture; death is no longer a personal event which takes place at home surrounded by family and friends. It has moved into hospitals and care centers, and all preparations for burial/cremation are carried out by hired professionals. This is in striking contrast to the practices of just 100 years ago, in which family members often prepared the deceased for burial and funerals were held in the home. Thus death has become mysterious and frightening, and anything which reminds us of death or dying is shunned.

This was clearly not the case for our ancestors, who experienced death more frequently than we did due to lack of medical technology, and also made it a personal and natural event. For them, a photograph of the deceased was a very valuable thing, representing a link to that person and a way of remembering them. This seems to have been especially true in the case of deaths of infants or young children. It was a way for parents to commemorate and remember the little ones they had lost, and keep them close in a way that simply visiting a gravesite may not have provided. (Incidentally, this practice of post-mortem photos of infants has been revived today, and some hospitals provide photographs of stillborn children or those who pass on soon after birth. It may seem disturbing to those unfamiliar with the practice, but it does help some parents cope with their grief and provides a cherished memento of their child.)

On a personal note, there has always been a tradition in my family of displaying photogrpahs of deceased family members and friends so that they may be remembered and in a certain sense, continue to play an important role in the lives of those still living. I do not possess any mortuary photographs myself, as I would personally prefer an image of the person in life, but this was not always possible for our ancestors in a time when photography was expensive and time-consuming. With modern technology, anyone can take a picture anywhere very cheaply. These photos have always been very special in my family as they provide a link to the deceased loved one; even after their passing, we can still look on their faces and remember.
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Old 01-04-2004, 11:15 PM
tomndebb tomndebb is offline
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I have not found any galleries of these photos on-line, but searches using "memorial" or "funeral" together with various words for photography and photographs turn up quite a few hits for books on the topic.

[url=http://www.oldwivestales.net/article1018.html]This site adds a bit to what has been posted (more in confirmation than in providing new info) and it also provides a bit of a bibliography.
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  #10  
Old 01-04-2004, 11:46 PM
Larry Mudd Larry Mudd is offline
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Ah, [[slap]
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  #11  
Old 01-04-2004, 11:58 PM
HeidiKay HeidiKay is offline
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When my father died last year, I took a picture of him in his coffin. The funeral director did such a wonderful job, it looked like he was about to start laughing. It made me feel better to see him like that instead of the pain that he had been in.

I asked the funeral director if I was being weird about wanting a picture, and he assured me that people still do it (but he could have been lying to make me feel better .
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  #12  
Old 01-05-2004, 12:11 AM
ratty ratty is offline
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Re: 1800s death photographs

Quote:
Originally posted by sugaree
One character says something to the effect that this custom came about because they felt the picture would help the soul live on after death.
Just thought of something. While I doubt such a superstition was the reason for the practice, it may have evolved afterwards to explain it. Many cultures believed, and still believe, that the deceased cannot rest easy if the living forget them. (Compare beliefs about 'hungry ghosts' in Chinese tradition.) Perhaps people felt that while they possessed the photo, the dead would still be remembered, and could thus be at peace knowing they were not forgotten.
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  #13  
Old 01-05-2004, 12:36 AM
Ale Ale is offline
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At the begining of photography the exposition times were very, very long (several minutes); live subjects usually were "fixed" using a head rest and staying reclined on something; a death subject didnīt move so there was no risk of blurred pictures.
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  #14  
Old 01-05-2004, 01:15 AM
BlackKnight BlackKnight is offline
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Ah, they're 1800's style death photographs!
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  #15  
Old 01-05-2004, 01:49 AM
trabi trabi is offline
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Quote:
Originally posted by HeidiKay
I asked the funeral director if I was being weird about wanting a picture, and he assured me that people still do it (but he could have been lying to make me feel better.
I once worked in a photolab, and we did occasionally get photographs of dead people at open-coffin funerals, so I'd say he was telling the truth.
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