HISTORY of POST-MORTEM PHOTOGRAPHY: CONTEXT for EXPLORATION of MODERN NEO-NATAL REMEMBRANCE PHOTOGRAPHY

Post-mortem photography was surprisingly common in the Victorian era. While modern viewers find it alternately disturbing or compelling, at the time it would have potentially been the only visual record of a beloved child, spouse, parent or grandparent.

 

In Secure the Shadow, Ruby proposes that post-mortem photography hasn’t disappeared in the modern-era, but has shifted with attitudes about death.

 

“the custom of photographing corpses, funerals, and mourners is as old as photography itself…while some believe it was a morbid ninenteenth-century custom no longer practiced, many funeral directors and professional photographers can testify to its continuance.” [1]

Photo from Secure the Shadow : Death and Photography in America. [2]

Ruby goes on to propose that post-mortem photography has shifted from intimate portraits of the deceased to family-portrait-style photographs with the casket (sometimes open, sometimes closed). The visible body has been removed from modern post-mortem photographs and has been replaced by the coffin stand-in.

 

Since Secure the Shadow’s writing in 1995, there appears to have been some changes in post-mortem photography. I hypothesize that post-mortem photography has narrowed its timeline of acceptability to neonatal stillbirths or infants who are expected to die within days of birth. It appears that neonatal remembrance photography has become an important part of the grieving process for parents who have lost a child. With the ubiquity of modern camera equipment most parents are able to document their children’s lives as they happen, so it is only within these babies’ short lives that post-mortem photography seems acceptable. In fact, many of the organizations who provide remembrance photography specifically limit their services to “families whose infants will never leave the hospital.” [4]

 

Photo from Secure the Shadow : Death and Photography in America. [3]

 

In the following essays I will explore modern day remembrance photography and how technology has expanded its reach. I will focus on the largest American organization that provides this service, a non-profit called Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. It is worth noting that hospitals have been providing similar services for parents who have suffered the death of a child since the 1980s and the advent of the neonatal hospice movement. [5] I will look specifically at the expansion of non-hospital services because I believe it speaks to shift in the public process of grieving (whereas the hospital could be seen as a private arena of medicalized grieving).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Modern Era essay I will explore the services offered, paying special attention to the language they use to talk about death and grieving; the volunteer photographer network they use to ensure photographers are available in a timely fashion, and the guidelines and “posing guides” provided to photographers and hospital staff.

 

In the Media Response essay I will examine contemporary press related to these services, noting that it is predominantly positive and compassionately represented, and seems to be widely accepted as an important part of the grieving process. This acceptance seems to indicate a shift in American perception of death, and a growing awareness of the psychological importance of documentation of death.

Image from homepage of the organization Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, [6]

[1] Ruby, Jay. Secure the Shadow : Death and Photography in America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995.

 

[2] Ibid. Page 53.

 

[3] Ibid. Page 97.

 

[4] Medical FAQs. Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. Accessed on August 2, 2015. <https://www.nowilaymedowntosleep.org/>

 

[5] Schmidt, William. Grief With Dignity in a Hospice for Infants. The New York Times. March 14, 1983. Accessed on July 23, 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/14/style/grief-with-dignity-in-a-hospice-for-infants.html>

 

[6] Homepage. Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. Accessed on August 1, 2015. <https://www.nowilaymedowntosleep.org/>