Picturing the dead

International delegate, Siv Jansson, meditates upon the resonances of the striking post-mortem image below, ahead of tomorrow’s discussions of post-mortem portraiture.

I haven’t yet been able to find out the back story to this picture, although I suspect it may be American. For me it is a striking examples of post-mortem photography because the dead girl looks relaxed, rather than stiff, and the pose is natural: the hands look relatively comfortable rather than forcibly linked. If you zoom in the eyes do have a fixed look, but this isn’t obvious from the perspective of the usual size of the photo.  It indicates the ease with death of past generations: there is no repulsion, no recoil from the dead body on show here. The shrouded furniture in the backdrop is far more supernatural than the human beings on display. As with many of these photographs, the corpse is clothed in daywear, rather than a nightdress: this is probably to add to the sense of ‘lifelikeness’, almost ordinariness, of the image, reminding us, perhaps, how familiar death was to nineteenth-century culture. It also speaks to one of the imperatives behind this kind of photography: the image of ‘life’ continuing, even though it is extinguished. Many pictures, of course, actually feature the corpse propped up, or standing, and these do betray an unnaturalness. This photo also indicates the desire to retain the dead girl as a family member, and to fix that in memory through a photograph, rather than memorialise her as explicitly dead, which would have been the effect had she been laid out with her eyes closed.


2 thoughts on “Picturing the dead

  1. Kathleen Brennan says:

    Is this from Stanley Burns’ collection of postmortem photographs? Quite a few were on display at the Merchant’s House Museum in New York about a year ago, and also, of course, have been published in Sleeping Beauty Vols. I – III. After visiting the exhibit and using the books a bit to research transatlantic trends in Victorian mourning culture, this photo definitely looks familiar.

  2. […] look as though it was just another family picture. Unnerving and creepy is what it was. (Click here if you can’t help yourself and want to see one.) While the other students looked into […]

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