It’s never too early in the season to start talking about creepy Halloween-oriented stuff, amirite? I can’t say why, but I’ve always been intrigued by the more macabre aspects of life and artistic renderings of such, of which there are many. I know I’m not the only weirdo who gets a slight thrill from being reminded of my own mortality and the mystery surrounding death. After all, goth culture had to come from somewhere.
Apparently it was common during the Victorian era for families to photograph deceased family members, often posing the deceased alongside the rest of the (living) family. I remember how freaked out I was when I first learned of this practice. And honestly, the idea still makes my skin crawl. Oh yeah — just because I’m fascinated by the macabre doesn’t mean I’m not terrified by it! I don’t hang out in graveyards and collect animal skeletons; not that I judge you if you’re into that. But my curiosity gets the better of me. It’s like not wanting to see a scary movie because you know you will need to sleep with the lights on for a week straight — but then giving in and just going to see it, because you can’t stop thinking about it and you just need to see what happens. That’s the best analogy I can think of to describe my morbid curiosity in the most literal form of memento mori.
It’s been suggested that the practice of post-mortem photography only demonstrates that the Victorians had a better handle on the reality of death and dying. Surely they needed to deal with death more frequently and directly, especially given the child mortality rates of the time. I can’t say how or why the practice of photographing the deceased arose — or perhaps instead, the reason we moved away from it in favor of, erm, today’s more low-touch mourning practices. But this historical oddity remains a topic of fascination for many, as evidenced by the plethora of horrifying Pinterest and Instagram accounts you can find that are devoted to the subject.
Instagram is what finally pushed my curiosity far enough to view some of these photos. I’m careful to say “some” because I fear that my handful of readers will respond to this post by thoughtfully emailing me some shots from their personal collection of Victorian photographs. PLEASE DON’T. I mean, for real, sometimes photos of living Victorian subjects creep me out, particularly photos of children. And yeah, I have those gothy inclinations that make it fun to see that kind of thing, but I can really only do it when I’m in the mood — meaning during broad daylight, with reality TV blaring in the background in order to quickly snap me back to reality if I get too freaked out. The reason I like Instagram is that, when viewed on my phone, the photos appear as small thumbnails that you can choose to tap and blow up for closer viewing. This emboldened me to start looking at curious lab specimens (a photograph of a skeleton of twins enjoined at the head), a beautiful photograph of a prairie family posing alongside a loved one’s coffin pre-burial (the ornate stitching and ribbons on the women’s mourning bonnets and dresses were gorgeous), and finally, some of the less creepy-looking post-mortem photography.
A couple weekends ago, I found myself absorbed by one of these ghoulish IG accounts, when I was suddenly roused from my screen-sucking by the piercing cries of my children, ages four and six. I don’t remember why, but the disturbance caused me to put down my phone and reenter the world of the living. At some point that afternoon, I ended up having a silly moment with my younger daughter, just tumbling around with her and giggling over the usual kind of humor that appeals to preschoolers. Mid-snuggle, I found myself pulled completely into her world. I took in my girl’s cherub-like features: curious, cute, with soft brown eyes peering through locks of wavy strawberry blonde hair. Her little tummy was rising and falling with her breath, periodically erupting into rippling waves as she let loose a stream of laughter. She was smiling with perfect pink lips, her little fingers pressing into my skin, bursting with pure radiant energy. This was life — this was love!
And it hit me then: The reason we need to accept and respect death is to better appreciate life, and what makes it worth living. Those photos of death and mourning gave me a fresh look at their very opposite — life, light, smiles, joy. However cliche it may sound, it’s a reminder that life is precious, and that there is much to be grateful for, including each fleeting moment of laughter, tears, cuddles, arguments, moments both tender and harsh.
I am very thankful to be raising my children a good 100+ years after the Victorians. I am happy because of how alive I feel when I’m with my kids and sharing every moment I possibly can with them. I can remember that one day, I will die, but stay focused on the present and its infinite possibilities for joy and abundance.