The importance of photographing the dead was a natural extension of the early days of photography, then considered a “black art” and regarded with equal parts suspicion and awe. The era of photography’s rising popularity also coincided with the American Civil War. Such comprehensive visual documentation brought home, as no other war before it, the brutality of its battlefields and casualties. In our novel, Picture the Dead, the heroine herself is confronted with a few such photographs. “I examine portrait images of young boys with guns high as their chest. Rows of the dying. Rows of hospital beds. The pictures have a dizzying effect on me.”
At the same time, the Victorian era saw not only death in war, but also through disease. Diphtheria, measles, tuberculosis, and scarlet fever were just some of the dread diagnosis that took life violently and unexpectedly. Oftentimes, the most at risk were babies and children, and funerals were part of daily life. Shocked by grief, families turned to photography as both a recourse and means to preserve a memory—especially when no photograph of the living child existed. A photographer was employed to take a postmortem photograph, also known as a “memento mori.” Memento mori is a Latin term that refers to any sort of artistic expression that reminds us of our mortality. It can be translated as “remember that you are mortal” or “remember that you must die.”
In a memento mori photograph, the lifeless corpse was either arranged as if in sleep, or, more incredibly, propped up to a seated or standing position, often in a group of living people, and with his or her eyes pried open as if in life. In yet another tactic, artists were called upon to paint eyeballs meticulously over closed lids, in order to create the illusion of an open eye. To our modern sensibility, such images hold an element of creepy, transgressive horror. When refracted through the prism of time, however, we can find kinship with our ancestors in realizing that there are no boundaries, emotional or temporal, in our all-too-human need to hold onto the memories of our loved ones.
These fascinating photographs, sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible and always morbid, can be found collected here, at The Thanatos Archive. Warning: some of these photographs are extremely disturbing and not for the squeamish. But remember, they were taken out of a sense of duty and love towards the deceased.
Photographs of the Civil War dead on the battlefield can be seen at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog.
Causes Adele Griffin Supports
Brooklyn Historical Society
Harlem Village Academies
Boys Latin School of Philadelphia