Trigger Warning: If you are soft-hearted or have a weak stomach, please be aware that some of the images in this article are of deceased Victorian-era people. If you do read on and are offended, please don’t send me negative comments about the subject matter. This was an actual Victorian-era practice.
Photography was a new technology in the Victorian-era, and as with all new technologies there was some resistance to its acceptance. However, when a beloved family member died, and you had no photographs or any other form of portrait to remember them by, post-mortem photography became the last opportunity to capture their image. This might seem morbid or gruesome to our modern sensibilities, but the heart wants what the heart wants.
We Are Seven
BY WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
———A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.
“Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.
“And where are they? I pray you tell.”
She answered, “Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.
“Two of us in the church-yard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the church-yard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”
“You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet Maid, how this may be.”
Then did the little Maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the church-yard lie,
Beneath the church-yard tree.”
“You run about, my little Maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the church-yard laid,
Then ye are only five.”
“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little Maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.
“My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.
“And often after sun-set, Sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.
“The first that dies was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.
“So in the church-yard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.
“And when the ground was white with snow,
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.”
“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little Maid’s reply,
“O Master! we are seven.”
“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
’Twas throwing words away; for still
The little Maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”
These photos were often the parent’s only portrait of their child, and the last opportunity to have a family portrait. The Victorian society might seem to have had many flaws, but they were clannish and often put the concerns of their family before anything else. Even though families were larger and the infant mortality rate was higher than today, this doesn’t mean that Victorian parents didn’t deeply feel the loss of every child. Indeed, I see post-mortem photography as proof that parental affection hasn’t changed over the centuries.
You can see the real grief in the faces in these portraits. This is the last chance to have a keepsake of their precious child. These photographs were not made for any macabre purpose, or because the Victorians were morbidly obsessed with death. These were people taking advantage of a newly introduced technology to help soothe the pain of loss.
In this era of instant photography, when every phone is also a camera, and our computers have cameras as well, it is hard to believe that these photographs would have been an expensive luxury for many families. But the money was found, somehow. The Victorians were sentimental, in a way that 21st century people are too sophisticated to understand. These photos survive because they were treasured, and not because it was fashionable to have portraits taken of the deceased.
The deceased were often posed as if they were sleeping. As a metaphor for a Steampunk writer, I believe these post-mortem photographs could represent family connections, the strength of love between family members, or even as an analogy for the briefness of mortality. Photography was still an innovative technology. This mixture of Science and raw Emotion can be a very powerful writing technique.