How to Photograph a Dead Person Standing Up
The Victorians’ proximity to death led to post mortem photography and the curious utensils they used to carry it out.
Only one culture – in a specific era – could have created a special artifact to hold a dead person in a standing position, to make it look alive and photograph it: 19th century England.
The Victorian period, which lasted for most of the 19th century, was an era impregnated with death. Mortality rates were exaggeratedly high, life expectancy was 44 years and it was very common for children to perish from diseases before reaching adolescence. The English were so fascinated by death and corpses and fostered an intimate relationship with ghosts, and even with the dead in the world of the living.
In fact, a person’s death was one of the most important moments of his/her live; family and friends gathered around the dying to listen and record their last words, to attend their death rattle and see how life abandoned his/her body. And in many cases the dead were photographed as if they had never passed away. The birth of photography in the 19th century with the daguerreotype (1839), coupled with the British obsession with death allowed for the proliferation of what is known as post mortem photography: an extremely eccentric expression.
The relatives of the deceased would painstakingly dress and apply make-up to the corpse to photograph it as people were photographed in life: in a carefully arranged set with furniture, flowers and other objects, and sometimes standing up, posing for the photo surrounded by the rest of the family. It was a way of keeping them ‘alive’ in the memory of those left behind, a variant on the memento mori (“remember you will die” in Latin).
People used metallic structures to support the corpse and maintain it standing up and which were hidden in the deceased’s clothes or camouflaged to appear as furniture or curtains.
Like taxidermy, this curious human lectern was an attempt to conserve something that had irreversibly been lost, a very special object that, for a few seconds, brought life back to the body for a few seconds and banished death, demortalizing the deceased.
It was, in short, an apparatus that allowed relatives and the photographer to play at being God during the exposure time of the old camera.
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