Thursday, May 20, 2010

Death Masks and Post Mortem Photos




What are death masks?

They are molds made upon the dead person’s face to forever hold their image in three dimensions (Alfred Hitchcock in photo above). From Socyberty online “The making of a death mask is a messy business – literally. They are difficult to make and the best position for the corpse is not lying down but sitting up. The shift from sculpture to masks came about in the Middle Ages when the art of waxwork and plaster casting became more sophisticated. The tradition evolved from royalty to eminent people and continues to this day. Another use, rather than in memoriam for an individuals was for the scientific study of human physiognomy. It was said that experts could tell criminals from the shape of their heads. Casts were also used to record and collect data on the racial differences in the human head.”

What are Post Mortem Photos?

They were very popular in the Victorian era when photography was relatively new. Families felt comforted to get a picture of their lost loved one, often times the only record they have of their existence since photos were rare for many families. Often times, the baby would be held in the parent’s arms or photos taken in a coffin or with family members around (or propped up between their parents like the photo above). As macabre as it seems, it put a reality on the loss. There were other memorials made for the grieving families including wall hangings made with designs done in the dead one’s hair woven throughout it and funeral flowers.

As creepy as these things may be, they are also morbidly fascinating. A Google image check for post mortem photos and death masks shows you a wide array of images that make you stop and stare in amazement. It was quite a different era during the Victorian times. It not only brought such morbid deathbed images, but also a fascination with séances and spiritualistic practices. Interesting how that fascination with death also came with a very puritanical time sexually and clothing that covered the body on every surface. They apparently had no issues with mortality, but only with mortal urges

15 comments:

  1. I've always found post mortem photos to be fascinating. It looks like they painted eyes onto the girl's eyelids...something they commonly did since it could be days before a photographer would reach their destination. Eyes don't look so good after being dead a few days.

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  2. Hey did you know I was leaving you a comment at the same time you were leaving me one? lol. I left you a reply over on my blog btw. :)

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  3. Did you know I was just reading this?

    http://scifiwire.com/2010/05/check-out-nikola-teslas-s.php

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  4. Pangs;
    We seem to be psychically connected cause late last night when I wrote this, I had just seen Tesla's death mask and that's what made me think about writing this post!

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  5. Kim;
    I always look for post mortem photos in the antique shops--they pop up from time to time. I have a very old vintage wall hanging in glass made in France for a dead woman named Lena with the flowers and hair in it--creepy!

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  6. I found this post very interesting! It is a little creepy to me but that's only because we don't do those things anymore...Interesting to see how things change :)

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  7. Dolly;
    I have to admit, back when my mother died, I took on as the family historian and so all the photos were sent to me. I found a few of the post mortem ones in there, including one of him in a coffin outdoors with the family around him. At the time, I didn't realize what I was seeing, so I got rid of them with some other photos that couldn't be identified. Jeez, I wish I had kept them. They are both chilling and interesting. There was a documentary not too long ago about people who bury their own family members nowadays. I'm hoping to find that again to review it for here. It was really creepy and yet so natural the way they handled death.

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  8. OMG....I have read so much about these! Hey...just saw your comment you left about your book! swal72@aol....send me your email!

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  9. When I was in my twenties I worked at a bank. I had to cover for the old guy down in "Safety Deposit" during his lunch hour. People would come in with their key and follow me into the big vault and I would find their lockbox and put the bank key in and then turn both keys and unlock the door. They would pull out the metal box and follow me to one of the little rooms that had just a table with a lamp and a single chair. I would close the door behind them and they would lock it before actually opening the box. It was such a big "ceremony" and I often wondered what was in some of those boxes. Several old people came in on a fairly regular basis. One elderly man would come almost daily. So one day, after escorting him to a room, I look up from my book and I'm startled to see him standing there. He asked if I'd like to see a photo of his deceased wife. So, trying to be nice, I said sure. Yep, it was a photo of his dead wife...laying in her coffin. I mean what do you say to THAT! I couldn't think of a thing to say except a soft "ohhhhh". Then he looked back down at the photo and smiled and walked back to his little room.
    I never liked covering those lunch breaks.

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  10. Cindi;
    That would actually make a cool idea for a short story... Chilling!

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  11. These pictures scare me and fascinate me at the same time. I don't know what to make of it.

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  12. Senorita;
    If you do a google search for "post mortem photos" you will see some amazing ones. The most difficult ones are the babies being held by the parents in their christening gowns.

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  13. When I was a kid in Iowa, people still had their funerals at home and took pictures of people in their coffins.

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  14. @eloh;
    Yeah, that was really common in my mom's time and the country folk did it often because they didn't have photos. It was a big deal to finally get a shot of someone. I was gonna say it, but somehow I just know, your death mask would have your tongue sticking out, right? Mine would have to be laughing. I do it too often. What a freaky bunch of wall hangings we'd be. I want mine hung up next to yours. No one could look at us without smiling.

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