Beyond the Dark Veil – beautifully macabre collection of Victorian post-mortem photography

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Beyond the Dark Veil is a handsome new volume exploring a fascinating, now seemingly macabre death practice.

During the Victorian era, with the popular spread of photography, and before the emergence of a funeral industry, the practice of home post-mortem photography had its heyday. It was common to have your deceased loved ones photographed, not only while lying in state, but sitting in chairs, standing up (with the aid of special corpse stands), even posing with living members of the family. It was as though, given the advent of the photograph, people felt as though they could keep their loved ones alive longer by taking pictures of them. And those pictures weren’t hidden away, to be privately wept over in melancholy remembrance, but prominently displayed in the most public areas of the home.

This is a gorgeously-produced hardbound book with an embossed, gold-foiled black leather cover and golden-edged pages. Photography comprises the bulk of the content here, but there are also essays from Jack Mord (owner of the Archive), author and death researcher Bess Lovejoy, artist Marion Peck, poet Joanna Roche, historian of photography Joe Smoke, and others.

The book contains 194 images, which include deathbed post-mortem photos, photos of dead children and families, adults, crime and tragedy post-mortems, and even photos of dead pets. The book also serves as a fascinating survey of late 19th century imaging technologies, with hand-colored photographs, albumen prints, ambrotypes, cabinet cards, carte de viste, daguerreotypes, gelatin silver prints, opaltypes, photo postcards, stereoviews, and tintypes, all from the extensive collection of The Thantos Archive.

Peppered throughout are also newspaper clippings, ads for funeral products, images of caskets, hearses, funeral trains, and other tools and ephemera of Victorian death and mourning. There is even a brief glossary of 19th century photography terms.

See gallery of Post Mortem and Mourning Photography at Wink

Notable Replies

  1. I see where you're coming from but the two are actually very different. The folks in these photos lived a life (even if it was a short one), interacted with their loved ones and left some tangible trail of existence.

    The current practice of photographing infants immediately after delivery, whether the infant was unexpectedly stillborn or in the case of a necessary interruption of a non viable, late term pregnancy, is a way to honor a life that almost was. This is to give parents something of their child to take into the future other than a horrific experience and tiny bag of ashes. As for the "dressing up", I'm aware only of minimal swaddling so that the parents may have a few moments with the infant before he or she is taken away. This is the brief moment in which these rudimentary photos are taken.

  2. In 1990 Twelve Trees Press published, "Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America". It's a selection of post mortem photos from the collection of Dr. Stanley Burns. A smaller, second volume was published later.

  3. Ah, no, those aren't the kind of photos I was referring to. The ones I've seen, the dead infants are dressed up, typically in christening gowns.

    Except for being in colour, they're very similar to the Victorian ones.

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