Despite the current ubiquity of cameras, we rarely pause in our flurry of social media sharing to document one of the most significant events in all our lives: death. Back in the 19th century, when camera technology became publicly available, documenting loved ones on their death beds or even after death was not uncommon. These photographs served as a vital part of a healthy grieving process, providing a tangible way to keep the memory of a departed loved one alive and close at hand in times of need. With photography came a way to preserve a family member’s image before they disappeared into the earth.
Death wasn’t far from life and detached as it is now, but something that could come quickly at any time and remain in your home. After getting beyond our unfamiliarity with seeing death so frankly depicted, we can feel a real emotional resonance with how these images were done with love for that person. With epidemics and a high infant mortality rate, this was often the only chance an image of their family member displayed in parlors and in family photo albums, side by side with photos of the living. A concrete testament to the sociological shift at that time was the immediate naming of infants as, in the 18th century, gravestones often just read “child”. No one who died under a year got a name. The photographs were a normal part of 19th century death, where mourning wasn’t something you were just supposed to tough out and get over quickly. There were even picnics at family tombstones.
Even if we are more startled now by images of death than a hundred years ago, there should be nothing distasteful about what was once a highly personal form of memory. Today, in Varanasi, India, where cremations happen by the hundred each day on the Ganges River, the dead keep constant company, arriving with dance and music, draped in orange and pink flowers. Whole industries support the last rites, including photographers who for a small price will take a portrait of the deceased before their pyre is lit and ashes are consigned to the water’s flow.
Death is not something looked down upon here, it is not creepy: it is celebrated.