Memento mori (Latin: “remember you will die”)mementomori

It’s October – the days are getting shorter and (thankfully!) cooler; the leaves are beginning to turn; the sudden morning chill is a reminder of the shifting seasons.  It is the time of Harvest and the ubiquity of pumpkin spice lattes – or pumpkin anything really…  It is also the month of Halloween!

In a few short weeks, neighborhoods will be tyrannized by children demanding candy with menaces, while dressed as ghosts and witches, pirates and princesses.  We’ll scare each other with creepy stories of things that happened to a friend’s-cousins’-boss’s-drinking buddy. (“Honestly! I swear it’s true!”)

In the spirit of Halloween, I thought I would share a little bit about a subject which casts an eerie, flickering light upon a time gone by – the Victorian trend of post mortem photography.

The Art of Post Mortem Photography

In the 21st century, “death” is often seen as something that can somehow be fought off like the common cold, with the “diet-du-jour”, vigorous exercise, and copious amounts of pharmaceuticals.  Any conversation about our ultimate  and – spoiler alert! – inevitable  demise, is avoided as being “morbid” and “depressing”. It is easy to forget that in the not-so-distant past, death and dying were very much a part of everyday reality.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the average life expectancy for men was 40-45 and for women, 45-50¹ – and these were the lucky ones that survived the perils of childhood!  The infant mortality rate in Europe and North America was such that approximately 1 in 3 children would be lucky to survive early childhood². Disease and deprivation stalked the land like, well, giant stalking things.  Add poor sanitation and few effective medicines to the mix and you have a society in which death was no stranger to even the more affluent members of society.  One need only wander through old cemeteries to see evidence of this.

“Photography”, such as it was, had mainly been a pastime of “gentleman scientists” until 1839, when Louis Daguerre presented what proved to be a major step forward in the development (ha!) of practical photography. The “Daguerreotype” became a popular method of creating a memento mori – an object of remembrance of a loved one, and a reminder of one’s own mortality.  For the first time, families were able to create lasting memorials and keepsakes at a relatively reasonable cost. The availability of Daguerreotype studios increased rapidly across Europe and North America during the mid 1850’s, and the practice of photographing the recently deceased became something of a phenomenon, peaking at the turn of the 20th century.


What I find most poignant about these images are how lifelike many of the subjects appear.  Babies and very young children were often pictured as if they were sleeping; older children and adults were often posed in a seated position or propped upright against a stand, as if trying to capture a moment in real life.  The tell-tale signs of death and decay are often disguised under elaborate clothing and clever lighting, but the limp limbs and blank faces are a giveaway.  Most of the photos were taken of the recently deceased, but you can find more macabre images of subjects that have definitely passed the point of no return…

You can view a selection of post mortem images here.

Trigger alert; some may find the images disturbing.

To learn more about Post Mortem Photography,  you can visit the Burns Archive and the Thanatos Archive.