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Memento Mori: How Victorian Mourning Photography Immortalised Loved Ones After Death (PICTURES)

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The advent of photography in the Victoria era provided an important new way for the bereaved to remember their dead.

In many cases, poverty stood squarely in the way of obtaining expensive painted portraits capturing loved ones in the prime of their lives.

Hence cheaper photography sessions began to grow in popularity – especially among bereaved families, whom in many cases, were finally able to obtain the only image they had of the deceased.

victoria postmortem photography

The corpse of a man is propped up and he is given a life-like expression for this photograph

Post-mortem photography – also known as memorial portraiture or "memento mori" (a Latin phrase meaning ‘remember your mortality’), dovetailed with the era’s high mortality rates.

The earliest images of this trend rarely featured coffins and would often see the deceased posed in an everyday position in an attempt to capture their essence during life.

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Props such as toys for children and flowers would also be included, braces would help to position the body and in some cases the subject’s eyes would be fixed open or later drawn onto the prints.

Responding to demand, some photographers would eagerly advertise their post-mortem specialities – which would have to be carried out quickly after death before decomposition began to set in.

Such was the popularity of the post-mortem photograph, renowned letter-writer Jane Carlyle (the wife of Scottish writer and historian Thomas Carlyle) was moved to remark in 1860:

"Blessed be the inventor of photography! I set him above even the inventor of chloroform! It has given more positive pleasure to poor suffering humanity than anything else that has cast up in my time or is like to -- this art by which even the poor can possess themselves of tolerable likenesses of their absent dear ones."

The trend for mourning photography began to fall out of fashion in the early stages of the 20th century as snapshots became more affordable and commonplace.

A hat tip to Reddit for flagging up these sad images via Imgur.

Victorian post-mortem photography
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