Despite the current ubiquity of cameras, we rarely pause in our flurry of social media sharing to document one of the most significant events in all our lives: death. Back in the 19th century, when camera technology became publicly available, documenting loved ones on their death beds or even after death was not uncommon. Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Mourning Photography from The Thanatos Archive by Jack Mord, released in December by Last Gasp Publishing, gathers 120 photographs from this lost rite of 19th and early 20th century United States and Europe.
Mord is founder and curator of the Woodinville, Washington-based Thanatos Archive, which since 2002 has acted as a digital archive of mourning photography. As he explains in a book essay, cowritten by Jacqueline Ann Bunge Barger who curated the 2013 Beyond the Dark Veilexhibition at California State University, Fullerton, the photographs “served as a vital part of a healthy grieving process, providing a tangible way to keep the memory of a departed loved one alive and close at hand in times of need; displayed in parlors and in family photo albums, side by side with photos of the living.”
Embossed with gold lettering, the volume appears like an old photo album. Sections focus on themes like “pre-mortem/deathbed,” where sickly figures are often surrounded by flowers as if already in their caskets; “crime/murder/tragedy,” where a family of three appears serenely resting in one coffin, after the wife killed her husband, young child, and herself when she suspected her husband of adultery; and even “pets.”
“Neither death rites nor cultural portraiture could flourish until the Industrial Revolution fostered public expressions of individual worth and benevolent nature,” writer Joe Smoke explains in an essay. “Two concrete testaments to this sociological shift were the immediate naming of infants and the personification of pets.” He notes that in the 18th century, gravestones often just read “child” or “babe.” No one who died under a year got a name.
Words: Alison Meier