“Memento Mori,” which translates to “remember that you must die,” was a Victorian tradition of photographing loved ones who had died. The custom was practiced more in England than in the United States. In England, however, it was more common to photograph the loved one in a casket. The photographs in the United States were usually staged to make the person who had died as life-like as possible.
“Memento Mori” may seem a little strange and frightening now, but during Victorian times, pictures of a family members who had died were displayed with pride and love.
“Memento Mori” became popular for several reasons. The first was the invention of the daguerreotype. While not cheap, it was far less expensive than having a portrait painted. Most families could not afford to have routine photographs taken, so the “memento mori” was often the first and last picture of a loved one. The first-known post-mortem photograph was taken in 1841.
Another reason that “Memento Mori” was so popular was the high mortality rate in the Victorian era. With no antibiotics or vaccinations, even a seemingly minor illness or injury often proved fatal. The death rate of infants and children were especially high.
A final reason for the popularity of these death photographs was the changing status of children within the family. Up until the mid-1900s., parents in working class families had little time or energy for bonding with small children. Children were quickly put to work to help the family financially. Labor laws for both adults and children led to closer bonding with infants. As parents and children grew closer, the death of a child seemed more tragic. Children were often photographed surrounded by their toys and propped up to look more alive.
Many photographers offered their services to take pictures of a person who had died. There were even articles in professional photography journals about how to photograph the dead.
The development of the snapshot all but put an end to “Memento Mori.” Because it was relatively easy and inexpensive to take pictures while people were alive, families felt less need to take a picture of dead loved ones.
That is not to say, however, that no one takes photographs of the dead anymore. Some people take a picture of the loved one in a casket at his or her viewing. Hospitals often offer to take pictures of stillborn babies or a babies that died shortly after birth. While some parents shun the practice, many parents are glad to have this photograph to remember their child.