Monday, November 7, 2011

Mourning Portraits

Okay, I know today's topic may be viewed by some as really rather morbid, but it was also a fact of life and was not an uncommon occurrence, or so I am led to believe.  Young children often succumbed to various childhood ailments that we either take for granted or no longer exist in our favoured lands.  The former, such as measles, mumps, childhood diseases against which we vaccinate, were deadly as recent as one hundred years ago.  Then there were the myriad of other issues, which have been pretty much eradicated, thanks to modern medicine and proper sanitation.  These would have included: diptheria, typhoid, cholera, summer complaint, tuberculosis, small pox all of which had the potential to wipe out entire families.

In the days prior to the personal camera, often young children would succumb to disease or accidental death before a professional photography session had ever been arranged.  If this happened, the grieving parents would occasionally arrange for a likeness to be captured posthumously.  While the idea seems rather macabre to modern day folks, this was the only way they had of preserving an image of their little one.  Think of our present day situation where every child is copiously photographed at birth and on at least a monthly basis, if not more often, from there on in, thanks to the world of digital cameras.

In my collections of family photos, I have two such photos.  Unfortunately neither has any identification of who the little body was.  I can surmise who they may have been based on death records and other photos that I received from the same families, but at best these are only calculated guesses, and may well not even be the right family lines.

The second one I would probably thought was a photo of a live child, because the eyes are open, however there is an inscription, handwritten at the top that does indicate it is an "after death picture".  The unnatural posing probably also adds credence to the fact this is in all likelihood a posthumous photograph.

I actually found a blog dedicated to what were known as mourningportraits.  Sorry it is not a site for the faint of heart, but it certainly gives us an insight into how our ancestors coped with early deaths.

The Daily Quest

This is a new daily feature on The Musical Gardener blog. Below is a question, or puzzle that will change day by day. Do not use the comment section of the blog for your answer.

Answer to Yesterday's Puzzle:  b) cemetery

Today's Puzzle:

What phrase is represented by this whatzit?

Please respond with your answer to the email below. I apologize but you will have to type my email address in manually (I'm attempting to avoid spammers).
Don't forget my Musical Gardener Contest
And that is about all I have to say for today.

Musings and meanderings from the Musical Gardener.


  1. I remember seeing a whole book of these photos once. They seem so odd in this day and change, but I think people had a much better attitude towards death in the past. People were died in and were laid out in their own homes, the family was part of the whole process. Now we seem to want to distance ourselves from death as much as possible, which is after all a natural part of life.

    The website is creepy but fascinating!

  2. My father and mother-in-law both had siblings who died at a very young age. They were both from middle class families that could afford doctors, but the treatments for illness just weren't effective and , of course, immunization wasn't available. Our family contracted whooping cough in 1998. We had mild cases because we were immunized, but even at that it was pretty miserable. Not hard to see that a baby could die from it.

  3. I'd never heard about that before but it doesn't surprise me; people dealt with death in a much more practical way in the past. My great-grandmother lived in London and lost eight children in the first year of their lives; the London "smog" was the main cause of death,little hearts and lungs could simply not cope with such levels of pollution. We have much to be thankful for.

  4. Interesting that you would post this today. I just posted the blog I had prepared last night. It includes my mourning picture of Noelle--the only one I have. She is still within me.

    The doctors did it so wrong at my full-term stillbirth. They wouldn't let me see her, touch her, or count fingers and toes. The doc would not even tell me what color her hair was. It compounded my grief!

    Seeing these wee ones is not morbid; it is part of the healing process as well as a reminder that their wee one really existed, if for a moment.

    The local hospital provides little quilts and outfits, and parents hold their demised babies. Those present when I gave birth were from some alternate universe, and they caused me incredible pain in the midst of deep loss.

  5. Our attitudes about death have changed a lot over the years. Once upon a time, the bodies were laid out in the family home, and a black ribbon was hung on the front door as an open invitation to anyone who cared to stop in. When they were teenagers, my mother and one of her sisters "stopped in" to as many of those homes as they could. Didn't matter if they knew the deceased or not.

    Not sure how I'd feel about having a death photo of someone I loved. Especially if the eyes were open. Kinda creeps me out.

  6. Very interesting. I will check out that blog after sending this off.

  7. Years ago things were different. I appreciate the death photos..and I am sure that the relatives far away sometimes over seas found it a comfort. You are correct, there were photographers who would come to the home and take these photos..I have a number of them. Very sad photos.
    I feel so sorry for Everything sad that she wasn't allowed to hold her child:(


Much appreciated comments from my friends: