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2018 Abstracts

Teens in Victorian Postmortem Photography

Sara Schlagel, Southern Utah University

Postmortem photography is a phenomenon which both horrifies and fascinates. What seems a strange obsession with death, and troubling fixation on corpses, is more accurately understood as an obsession with memory – and the lengths people will go to in order to capture what they can of their lost loved ones. The most interesting information studying postmortem photography provides is not the facts of Victorian mourning and burial practices, but something less explored: how the Victorians formed attachments to their friends and family while alive. It is true that these photographs were taken due to the relative newness of photography at the time and families often possessed no image of the deceased while they were alive. Because of this, and high child mortality rates, the majority of post-mortem photographs feature infants and children. What then should catch our attention is the rarer images of teenagers and young adults. The photograph is often personalized to fit the character or interests of the individual, the name, age, and even cause of death of the person is often known, and the photographs were generally reproduced multiple times to be distributed to non-immediate family and friends. This reveals, quite simply, the level of investment that the mourners had in their deceased family and friends. Infant/child death was so prevalent that Victorians took steps to ensure they did not form strong attachments until the child had grown and come of age. The deaths of teenagers were, then, more devastating, as they had impacted the lives of many individuals, and their family and friends could usually expect to enjoy a long and happy life with them (the Victorian lifespan being relatively close to ours today, if infancy was survived). This paper observes the variety of post-mortem photographs available to us today, and uses them to illustrate what we can learn both about Victorian mourning practices and the way familial relationships were invested in before the death of their subjects. This is a unique approach to studying these photographs, as previously they have typically been used to draw conclusions about standard burial practices – when in fact they have so much to teach us about how the living Victorians protected themselves in a world of prevalent death.