The world is full of needs that must be met…

…and one certainty in life is that somewhere, somehow, someone on the internet will find a way to meet those needs.

See, for example, Skulls Unlimited. Click the link. Seriously, just click it. Explore a little. Then come back here.

Yes, you really saw that.

Yes, it is an actual business, serving an actual need. Well, where did you think people went to get skulls when they needed them? Grave-robbing is so 16th Century…

Yes, they have an absolutely brilliant full-color catalog full of skulls, and sometimes they have discount bones on sale.

This. is. AWESOME.

Thanatos Landscaping (2)
You never know when you’re going to need a deer skull…

Creepy? Nah — that’s not creepy at all. You wanna see creepy? Check this out: The Thanatos Archive.

Did you check it out?

Are you OK?

Actually, it’s pretty amazing stuff — A HUGE collection of post-mortem and memorial photography, capturing the dead (sometimes with the living, sometimes alone). It apparently isn’t done much anymore in the US, but post-mortem photography was all the rage for a while, once upon a time. Apparently it is still practiced in other parts of the world. There, in the image, we captured the dead as we remembered them, and we kept them to be remembered. It was especially common to photograph infants who had died — there are strangely moving images of infants, looking as if they slept, held up in their mother’s arms for one last memorial. There’s also an amazing collection of them online at the Museum of Mourning Photography and Memorial Practice — look through their gallery, and you’ll find a very different world, and (I suspect) a rather different attitude toward death and the image of death than a great many USians would find familiar nowadays.

Personally, I’m not sure how I feel about these images. I just don’t know how I should feel. I suspect I should find them especially morbid, but I’m a bit torn between that feeling and a sense of a sort of loving sadness. The people in these images (the dead ones and the live ones) are haunting and haunted all at once.

Amazing what one gets to reading on the internet by accident, isn’t it?

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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2 Responses to The world is full of needs that must be met…

  1. Matt Voigts says:

    It seems like something I should know about, though I was looking up information on Spiritualism in the 1800s, I didn't run across many mentions of post-mortem photography – though the fascinating, unnerving trip your links sent me on is full of images that are clearly of the same cultural milieu of the time.

    No doubt there's further stuff out there exploring what happened in the 20th century (100 years of mass devastation on an unforeseen scale) that so separated us from death (or, at least, put a taboo on its photographic depiction). My initial reaction is that in depicting mortality, they make their subjects seem real (to me) in ways that typical pictures of the once-alive don't. We're so used to seeing images of the long-dead when they were still breathing, presenting an illusion of immortality. Heck, recently on Ebay there were some era daguerreotypes being marketed on Ebay for their subjects resemblances to Nick Cage and John Travolta, offering a joking fantasy of the two celebrities as immortals. Photos of the dead as they were in life, though, looking at them well over a century later bridges a sort of gap between the past and present, offering a reminder that the picture may capture a moment but the past isn't fixed – it has decayed, changed, and whatever other images we look at from the same time show things that in a physical sense are no longer there.

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  2. Indeed.

    There's something about the kind of photography we're looking at, too, that has a rather powerful effect. I think that seeing these same scenes of death, staged just as they are, shot with a contemporary digital camera would be appalling. I'm not sure why. Perhaps there's something about the way daguerrotype photography handles light and detail (something that can be emulated with digital tricks, but that we usually try to avoid in “good” photography now). The fuzz around the edges, the strange detail emphases…contemporary images of this kind would be disgustingly clean and clear, I think (if that sentiment makes any sense). They would be clinical.

    I also find myself wondering about the process of staging these shots. What were the people preparing them thinking, as they cleaned and clothed the dead for one last memorial image? What did they expect from the image? What must it have been like to sit in a chair, holding one's own dead child — or to hide behind drapery to prop up/hold one's dead child?

    I can't even begin to imagine it. At best, it reminds me of carrying my poor old Angel dog out to the vet's car after we euthanized her. She seemed so light, as if she'd blow away, and still just warm enough…as if her soul had left, and her body remembered it for a bit. These images remind me of that feeling.

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