Victorian Death, Memento Mori, and the Stop and Gawk Factor

I don’t know about “useful” or “reliable,” at least not today, but I’m sure fascinating would be an appropriate adjective.

I know that I’ve more than a passing interest in history- especially the Victorian era and the 1940’s- but as I was watching (yet another) documentary on Abraham Lincoln I learned where some of America’s most bizarre funerary traditions come from.  Being the curious sort that I can be (especially on the macabre or just plain weird) I decided to research a bit more.

Embalming is not a new science, and wasn’t a new science in Victorian times either.  The ancient Egyptians and some other desert cultures were into embalming due to their beliefs concerning the afterlife, but until the 19th century it was seldom practiced in European cultures.  In the US, embalming was a common practice during the Civil War (a whole industry sprung up around preserving dead soldiers so they could be sent home and buried) and even President Lincoln   was embalmed (the only way he would have survived the train ride back to Springfield in sort of one piece) but it fell out of favor here in the US until the early 20th century, when open casket funerals became popular.  Some of the chemicals used in 19th century embalming would certainly not be looked upon favorably by today’s regulatory agencies.  Arsenic was one of the more popular preservatives.

The Victorians were big on postmortem pictures too, which if nothing else, to the modern eye are nice little reminders of the concept of memento mori (remember your own mortality.)  It’s hard enough for us today to grasp the concept of mortality because most people die shoved off into a hospital or nursing home.  It would offend most modern sensibilities to go around taking pics of dead people.  Why the open casket funeral – a custom I find distasteful- is so popular in a culture that denies the reality of death, I’ll never know.  Jessica Mitford offered her insight on the subject in the book, The American Way of Death, which I highly recommend.

Most of us find the idea of taking pics of dead people to be creepy, but if you couldn’t afford to take a pic of your loved one when he/she was alive, you’d find the scratch to have someone take the pic when your loved one died, because that would be the only tangible memory left.  Hopefully the photographer would make it before the loved one started to rot.  Some photographers were very skillful in the art of “restoration”- retouching the pictures to make the subject look a little less dead, while others weren’t so good.

The eyes!!!!  Zombie Baby’s gonna eat me!

I think some photographers tried to feign “life likeness” by the angle of the shot, etc.  I can’t tell if this little girl is dead or not:

If she is alive, she’s not too thrilled about having her pic taken.

For me these kind of visuals are in the same category as the impulse to stop and gawk when driving by an accident on the freeway.  Everyone does it.  It’s not a phenomenon reserved for Central Ohio during rush hour.

I live just down the road from a Moose club, a VFW and two bars.  I get to witness DWI busts every freaking weekend (and sometimes during the week) from the comfort of my front porch.  Last week the cops nabbed some poor dude in a Chevy Cobalt who had gotten stuck in the small ditch just a few yards from my house.  Cobalt Dude was so blitzed he couldn’t touch his nose with his finger, (let alone walk the line) and upon inspection he had a pocket full of drug paraphenalia that was splayed across the decklid of the cruiser and photographed.  It was the same cop who, a few years ago, had dragged Steve-o in at 2AM- the one who’s about 6’8″, and I’d say a good 300#, and has a bit of an attitude.  So it was no surprise when Officer Titan asked this unfortunate lush and/or stoner to lean up against the cruiser, then to hold out his right hand (promptly cuffed) and then his left hand (brought together with the right and also promptly cuffed.)  Cobalt Dude not only got to ride in a police car, he got to go to jail too.

Arguing with Officer Titan is a Bad Idea.

I need a video camera, though I’ve not bothered to acquire one. The temptation to film Jerry in his oft-performed role as Tipsy Mc NumbNuts is irresistable, and if I had the camera I would do it.  Cruel and inhumane as it may sound, it would be a blast to record his incidents for posterity, as well as the DWI busts I get to witness right in front of my house.  My life is surrounded by YouTube gold.

Which reminds me, I need to try to find a replacement for the magazine tube for his .22 that he lost whilst attempting to clean it while completely effed up.   I tried to tell him that it’s not appropriate to attempt to clean one’s gun after chugging the better part of a NattyPack (30 twelve ounce beers) but what the hell do I know?

Drunks-n-guns: It never turns out good.

4 thoughts on “Victorian Death, Memento Mori, and the Stop and Gawk Factor

  1. whiteladyinthehood says:

    Zombie baby freaked me out! That is one spooky picture. The second little girl is kinda even creepier because the more you stare at it – you just can’t tell for sure…I think she looks alive…..gave me chills!

    • I’m twisted, I guess, because I’ve always found postmortem photography fascinating, and I’ve never been able to figure out why. I don’t like open casket funerals or any other actual viewing of dead people, so it doesn’t really make any sense.

      • whiteladyinthehood says:

        Yeah, you might be a little twisted there, Miss Elysian, but twisted is good when you have a keen sense of humor (which you do!) I’m teasing you! You are a hilarious writer. I read such a variety of different blogs – I find lots of things off the beaten path to be fascinating.

  2. The baby pic is INDEED creepy, and more than a little sad. I guess I can understand wanting to have a picture of your child, if you had no other. Just the idea of losing a child at that age is so heartbreaking.

    No video camera, but does your cell capture video? That would at least make for some good drunk-watchin’.

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