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I've been spending a lot of time looking at pictures on Pinterest -- my new favorite hobby! There is a lot to be learned there, too. One thing that continues to intrigue me are the post-mortem photographs that were taken mostly in the 1800's. Before cameras were a part of everyday life, many families had no pictures of their loved ones, especially children. Sometimes the family would call in the photographer when they had sickness in their household and believed the person wasn't likely to recover. These were pre-mortem photographs that provided them with a memento of their loved one while they were still living. Children in these pictures look very ill, even when they are dressed in their best attire and given healthy settings such as holding a toy or a pet.
This child appears to be alive, but ill.
Her eyes are weak, and she only halfheartedly holds her stuffed toy.
There is no visible stand hold her up -- she seems to be standing on her own.
Very touching are the ones I've seen with the sick child being cuddled by its loving mother.
This photo shows a mother holding an extremely ill daughter who appears to still be living here. Her eyes are deeply sunken in from being sick, but her hand rests against her mother in a natural position. If she were deceased, that hand would be limp.
This one is so endearing.
This little girl is either critically ill or deceased.
Far more common was the practice of taking a picture, usually of a deceased child, and often with the surviving siblings in the same photo. I read that at least one-third of a photographer's subjects during this period in history were post-mortem. Before the practice of taking pictures of the deceased in coffins at the funeral home was begun, the photographers had stands they brought into the home which were used to prop the bodies up into lifelike positions. They had make-up to cover the skin discolorations of death, and they also touched up the actual photographs, including painting in open eyes if the deceased person was photographed with their eyes closed. Some were so good at this that it takes strong magnification to be absolutely certain some of these were actually post-mortem pictures, if you could tell at all.
Some more symbols signifying death include scissors (cutting the cord of life), a bent or broken rose in the hand of or near the deceased (a life ended prematurely), and a doll with its head turned away from the camera and usually facing the deceased because it was a custom at the time for a person in mourning to have their picture taken with their head turned away from the camera.
A photographer's ad showing how realistic the eyes could be made to look.
The large teddy bear was probably used to hide the posting stand behind the oldest girl here. Evidence that she was no longer living includes an unnatural angle to her right hand, a lot of makeup on her face and neck, and what may be painted-on eyes that were added to the developed photograph. Her eyes, especially when compared to those of the other people in this picture, don't look natural at all.
Like many others, I don't find this to have been a morbid practice in any way. These people loved each other, and they wanted something, some semblance, of the precious person they lost to remember them by. While memories tend to grow dim, a photograph of the departed loved one, often the only picture that was ever made of them, gave these families something a little more solid to hang on to in their grief. I have pictures of deceased loved ones from my own family history, and I have taken pictures of loves ones I lost, even though we had many, many pictures of some of them from when they were living. I don't look at them often, but they are there for me when I want to remember what that last glimpse of a dearly-loved face looked like.
The result of seeing all these brought to mind a poem I found and memorized many, many years ago. The title is "Baby Fingers", and I don't have any idea when it was written, or who originally penned its words. My guess is that it is very old -- probably written at least during the era of these photos. I want to put it here so it won't become eternally lost...
If we knew the baby fingers,
Pressed against the window pane:
Would be cold and stiff tomorrow;
Never trouble us again:
Would the bright eyes of our darling,
Catch the frown upon our brow?
Would the prints of rosy fingers,
Vex us then as they do now?
Ah, those little ice-cold fingers,
How they point our memories back:
To the hasty words and actions,
Strewn along our backward track.
How those little hand remind us,
As in snowy grace they lie:
Not to scatter thorns, but roses,