Many photographs from the 1840s and ’50s depict a corpse posed in a semblance of sleep. The convention makes death look easy and gentle—a rest from labor. “It has a heavenly calm in it,” the English author Mary Russell Mitford remarked of her father’s cast in 1842. But this conceit has an ulterior motive: to trick the viewer into believing that death is sleep, no metaphor about it. Consider the image above, of a boy who bears no trace of decay in his luscious round face. And yet for every photo like this one, a dozen more exist in which photography’s irrepressible realism exposes the charade, in the form of fever sores or sunken eyes. Such images mix comfort with a kind of cruelty.
Postmortem daguerreotypes are piercingly intimate. They bring the viewer close enough to the face of the dead to see a boy’s long lashes, or a girl’s spray of freckles. Many were taken at home. No props here: These are the chairs the dead once sat in, the toys their living bodies held. It is in these daguerreotypes especially that we discover what the French critic Roland Barthes called the “punctum” of a photograph: the accidental element that “wounds” a viewer with its poignancy. In a daguerreotype labeled “Our Darling,” for example, the humble detail of the girl’s dirty fingernails reveals the truth of every postmortem photograph: the life that the dead left behind.
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Beginning in 1851, daguerreotypy gave way to the wet collodion process, which made photography cheaper, faster, and reproducible. The medium soared in popularity, and the market for postmortem photography expanded. As it did, the aspirations for postmortem photos also rose. By the 1860s, death photos began explicit attempts to animate the corpse. Dead bodies sit in chairs, posed in the act of playing or reading. In one striking tintype dated 1859, a young boy perches on a seat, eyes open, holding a rattle. A close look reveals a wrinkle on the left side of the backdrop: a clue that someone, most likely the photographer’s assistant, is propping the child up. In a cabinet card from the 1890s, a young girl holds a plaything in one hand and a doll in the other. Parents and photographers engage in a nostalgic game of make-believe. But the dead children refuse to play along, looking more inanimate, somehow, than their toys.
This slide into sentimentality, even if grotesque, coincides with a profound shift in Western attitudes toward death. The 1870s witnessed the advent of a religious upheaval in America and Western Europe. Traditional arguments about immortality lacked the weight they carried only a few decades earlier, especially among the middle and upper classes. Accounts of death during this period no longer expressed the piety and spiritual fervor of earlier times.
No wonder, then, that the effort to tame and beautify death in daguerreotypes collapsed in the late 19th century. In its place, a confusion of approaches appeared. Some postmortem photos still portrayed peaceful, domestic images of the dead. But the faces in those images are mostly Latin American, Eastern European, and working class. It was a sign, perhaps, that these groups possessed a deeper faith in God—or in photography.