WARNING– THIS BLOG HAS SOME SENSITIVE PHOTOS AND TEXT
The Victorian era is known to some as the Occult of Death. This was an era where the loss of a loved one was sadly far too common, but was dealt with endearing rituals. The picture above is a little girl no one knows. She died when she was yet ten years old, and her communion veil and bouquet were put into a Victorian mourning box. The picture has tear marks down the centre and nothing will take them out. I also have a Victorian coffee table that has all-glass sides that displayed mementos from the dead.
When I was a child I used to get annoyed at friends and family for taking a pictures of the dead in their coffins. To make matters worse; in the deep rural areas they used to have their wakes in front of the open coffins. I thought everyone was being tacky, when really they were just referencing old traditions began by the Victorians.
We have trained ourselves to look at images of mass murder, but I still can’t help but be creeped out by what should be tender gestures of farewell. Death shadowed every day of life in the nineteenth century. Three of every twenty babies died before their first birthday, and those who survived infancy had a life expectancy of only forty-two years. Death was a daily possibility, lurking in every drop of untreated water, disguised in bottles of popular patent medicines, hovering over every scene of childbirth.
From Jay Playfair’s album– thanks to Laurie Yuill Middleville historian
Mourning had two stages: deep, or full, mourning and half-mourning. Each stage had its own rules and customs of decorum. When someone died, all the members of the household (including the servants) would adopt deep mourning. Curtains were drawn and clocks were stopped at the time of death. Mirrors were covered because of a lingering superstition that the spirit of the deceased could become trapped in the reflective glass. The body was watched over every moment until burial. Indeed, the prevalence of grave robbers prompted many to hire guards to watch over the grave.
Throughout the period, certain images were used again and again to represent the frailty and the brevity of human life. Draped urns, broken columns, weeping willows, and extinguished torches can be spotted in articles as diverse as tombstones, portraits, children’s books, and embroidered samplers. The same imagery even recurs in the literature and poetry of the day. Bereavement touched virtually every aspect of Victorian life, lending a somber hue to even the brightest day.
Prior to 1839 portraits were painted, but with the invention of the daguerreotype photograph, portraiture became more affordable and accessible. This meant that the middle class could now afford to have pictures taken to memorialize their loved ones — their dead loved ones, that is, and particularly infants and children. With the invention of the carte de visite in the middle of the century came multiple prints so that families could share pictures of their dead children with other family members and friends. Since most children would not have had their images captured prior to their untimely deaths, it makes perfect sense; although the practice would seem utterly taboo in contemporary Western culture.
The custom of gathering around the coffin for one last family photo is still alive and well, if you’ll pardon the expression. You have to remember that most of these families had no other photos of their children, and at that time the mortality rate was about 50% before the age five. Some may have died in childbirth or had appendicitis or diabetes which are things we don’t even think about today.
Death was so commonplace, people would have to get used to it. The infant mortality rate, before the introduction of vaccines and antibiotics was huge (and even discounting infants, there are about as many gravestones for the young as for the old in 19th century graveyards), and deaths took place at home. So by the time one reached adulthood, the odds are that one would have experienced, first hand, the death (and its aftermath) of at least one family member
Some photos are incredibly sad. People then sure had no fear of contact with the subject-matter of death. Someone once said that sex was the great taboo of the 19th century, as death was the great taboo of the 20th century.
Since the idea of postmortem portraits was to have something to remember the deceased by, there was often staging and post-photo work done to achieve the effect of life. Bodies were posed in lifelike positions, surrounded by family, children holding favorite toys, and eyes often propped open. Sometimes, pupils were painted on in the studio and rosy cheeks were added to the image of the corpse.
During the second stage of mourning one could wear a piece of jewelry if it contained, or was made of, hair. The human hair taken from the deceased love one. Brooches, bracelets, rings, chains and buckles were all made of hair; sometimes there was just a bit enclosed in a hollow band or brooch, other times, the hair was crafted into a piece of its own. Last year at an estate sale they had a box of human hair for 15.00. Needless to say no one was talking about purchasing it
My initial reaction was, “Wow, this is all pretty weird.” But it quickly seemed that there is a reason for it. They were using a new technology used for mementos. We now have tons of physical pictures, movies, films, cell phone, cd, dvd, text messages, email messages, public records that evidence our existence and we don’t ever think about that. For these people, this was the first time that they would have something more than memory, word of mouth, and maybe a birth certificate that show proof that they had lived. When these people died, it was a last chance to get a picture of Uncle Fred. But new in the sense that this was a new technology and these were the first people who could take advantage of it.
Picture of Ann and Sarah Cram of Carleton Place — Ann’s eyes have been painted on her eyelids. Property of the Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum.
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