In the early decades of photography, exposure times were so long it was easier to take pictures of the dead rather than the living, since the subjects didn’t move. People sitting for a portrait were fitted with a neck brace to help them keep still, which is why they often looked as if rigor mortis had set in, even when they were alive. As it happened, many were not. Until the late 19th century, post-mortem photographs were a popular way to memorialize the recently deceased, particularly infants and small children. Many commercial photographers specialized in them at a time when photography was expensive and family portraits of any kind were still rare. Photographers often went to great lengths to capture life-like poses of the dead: infants ostensibly asleep in their cribs, children cradled in their mothers’ arms, adults propped up in bed or even sitting in chairs. Memorial photographs were often hand-tinted to put a rosy bloom on pallid cheeks or were otherwise retouched so that eyes closed in death might look open. For obvious reasons, the dead often appeared more relaxed in photographs than their living counterparts.
Modern sensibilities recoil from the seemingly morbid preoccupations of our Victorian ancestors. And yet it’s not at all clear that doing away with such graphic reminders of our own mortality is necessarily an improvement. In an influential essay entitled “The Pornography of Death,” British sociologist Geoffrey Gorer argued that we have merely replaced the Victorian squeamishness about sex with a modern-day taboo against death. Political considerations aside, the Bush Administration’s ban on photographs of flag-draped coffins coming out of Iraq is indicative. Contrast this with the corpse-strewn battlefields immortalized in Matthew Brady’s photographs of the Civil War, where a single battle could kill more soldiers in a day than all those lost in some of our recent wars. Death may be no less a fact of life than sex, but nowadays we’d prefer the evidence be kept well out of sight.
What is it we don’t want to look at? However hard it is to bear the death of another, it is that much harder to contemplate our own. Freud maintained that our death is unimaginable to us – or to be more precise, that we can do so only by imagining that we are somehow still around to witness it. Our practice is to place a hood over the head of a condemned criminal so he does not have to witness his own execution. But perhaps it is really we who wish to spare ourselves the sight of his final look into the abyss.
“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls,” wrote the poet John Donne, “the bell tolls for thee.” By this he did not mean that death was some dread contagion threatening to spread to oneself, although he lived at a time when deadly epidemics were always a threat. Indeed, Donne was moved to write this line when he believed he was dying from a disease that is now thought to have been typhus. However, he had long welcomed the prospect of death as a release from the sorrows of this life -- so much so that scholars have accused him of harboring a death wish. The point here is that for Donne, death is always a communal act. Just as a child at baptism is “ingrafted into the body whereof I am a member,” so the death of another is removing a piece of oneself from the world. “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” Donne observed. It is therefore not just the coward who dies a thousand deaths but everyone who comes to recognize that our mortality is shared.
John Donne, “Meditation XVII” from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions