Friday, February 16, 2007

Group Revives Victorian Custom of Post-Mortem Portraiture to Help Grieving Parents

A Colorado nonprofit organization has revived a grieving custom widely practiced in the nineteenth century, particularly in Britain and the United States: the making of photographic portraits of the dead, or "memento mori."

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep specializes in infant bereavement photography. Co-founded in 2005 by Cheryl Haggard, whose fourth child died just six days after his birth, and photographer Sandy Puc, the group connects a network of photographers who provide their services free of charge with parents grieving the loss of a new child.

The photos, some of which can be seen on the group's website, are beautiful: softly lit, in velvet tones of black, white, and grey. They are the somber, private opposite of the bright commercial flower-children photographs of Anne Geddes. Amazingly serene moments are captured; tiny bodies are cradled gently and held close. By no stretch of the imagination are they morbid.

The origins of memento mori photographs can be traced back nearly to the beginning of photography itself. During the nineteenth century, post-mortem portraits were used to acknowledge and mourn the death of a loved one, especially a baby or child. All social classes engaged in the practice, which became more widespread after the introduction of the daguerrotype in 1839. The subjects of the photos were generally arranged to appear as if peacefully asleep, all their earthly suffering ended. Displayed prominently in the household alongside other family photographs, the portraits helped heal grieving hearts by preserving some trace of the deceased.

And they still do.

Compare this statement, made in 1870:

"What a comfort it is to possess the image of those who are removed from our sight. We may raise an image of them in our minds but that has not the tangibility of one we can see with our bodily eyes" (from Death, The Last Taboo: The Victorian Era)

with this one, made by a family using the services of the Colorado organization:

"Our cherished photographs show the love we shared and gave to our son... They show he was here and that he will forever be a part of our lives—no matter how brief his stay on earth was. This is our way of honoring and remembering our precious baby boy.” (from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep)

Post-mortem photography gradually fell out of favor in the twentieth century as it came to be seen as psychologically unhealthy. The pendulum now seems to be swinging the other way.

One of the most touching photographs I've ever seen, and one squarely in the Victorian memento mori tradition, is Annie Leibovitz's post-mortem portrait of her partner, Susan Sontag, which was published recently as part of a new collection of her work, A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005 (Random House, 2006).

Related links:

Haunted When It Rains: "Book of the Dead" Victorian Post-Mortem Photography

FLICKR photos of Victorian tombstones in Highgate Cemetery, London


Tracy W said...

What a good charity. When I first came across the idea of Post-Mortem portraiture I wondered "why on earth", but from this charity, I can see why. And clearly it is so important for parents whose children are alive for a such a little time.

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