Photograph of Missie Storr, Ottawa, Jan. 1876

Memento Mori

December 2, 2013
Photograph of Missie Storr, Ottawa, Jan. 1876
Credit: Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada. Jan 1876. Ottawa, ON, MIKAN No. 3434209

Susan Sontag wrote, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality…all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” The phrase memento mori comes from the Latin to “remember death” and it commonly refers to postmortem photography, used frequently in the late 19th and early 20th century. My fellow contributor, Carly Marie’s recent experience on Facebook has got me thinking about our memento mori.

If you have not been following what happened, Carly Marie issued a challenge for the month of October called Capture Your Grief. Her plan was beautiful, issuing a daily challenge to take a photograph that expressed your grief or your healing process and post it to a Facebook page. I participated last year and loved it. On the second last day of the challenge, someone outside the baby loss community posted nasty comments on one of the included images, one of our memento mori, and it rapidly spread. I think we can all imagine the hurtful things that were said, often because we have heard them before. “Don’t show those pictures.” “That’s disgusting” “You’re sick”, etc. It is yet another reminder that some people do not want to acknowledge our children. They want us to hide them away and pretend they never existed.

So how did we get here? Why, in the early days of photography, did we take photos of our deceased? When did we stop, and why? How can people be so offended by simple images, most of which are tastefully done, not showing gore or disease? I decided to do a little research…

I found people have taken photographs, beautiful photographs, of the dead for as long as there have been cameras. They’ve done it in many cultures throughout history: in Russia, Iceland and Japan, in the UK, in communities of Hungarian immigrants in Ohio and among African Americans in Harlem, NY. Photos of the dead and dying are celebrated in the art and journalism worlds, as evidenced by many of the most famous Pulitzer Prize winning images. The 2006, 2007 and 2008 feature photography winners all were depictions of death, grieving and loss. Almost all the  breaking news photography winners are depictions of death as well, from images from the Haitian earthquake, to the aftermath of a bombing in Kabul. Many of us were not fortunate enough to have professional photos taken. Instead, we have blurry images, taken in haste by a shaky hand. Yet in each image I have seen, great care was taken to make our babies look their best. They were held lovingly, teddy bears or hats covering areas where the skin is starting to shed, and often retouched to appear less clinical. Perhaps that is a clue to people’s revulsion. Unlike the images in the news, where no attempt is made to make death ‘pretty’, our attempts to normalize the death of our children disturbs people. It is okay if we can pretend that death is something that happens to other people, but a photo of a mom holding her child, tears in her eyes, is too close to home. They see their own family photos, not that different from ours, and know that it could just as easily have been them.

Many critics of memento mori believe this is a practice from the past, when it was harder to obtain photographs of someone while they were still alive. This is not true either. Surveys in the late-20th century of photographers, photo processers and funeral home directors all indicate that the practice never went away, although maybe people were less likely to display their photos publicly. For some reason, in the past few decades, we have stopped sharing our memento mori. Maybe now that taking photos with our phones has become easier, and sharing photos through Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites becomes common, we will return to a time where photos of the dead are no more unusual than photos of the living.

Amazingly, new research is showing that sharing our memories, like these photographs, can help us heal. A study in the UK of 160 women who had a stillborn baby showed that those who were happy with their opportunities to share memories had better mental health, even 10 years later. Talking and writing about our experiences, showing our pictures and hand and foot prints, having others acknowledge our loss makes it easier for us to process our grief. The study also found that only half the mothers shared their memories and mostly only within their immediate social circle. This is where the problem with Facebook lies. It is so easy for our memories to be shared beyond our immediate friends and family, to lose control over our own narrative.

How should we strike the balance between needing to share and protecting ourselves from harm? Do you get support in ‘real life’, or come online to find a safe space to talk about your children? Can we find a way to encourage those who are hostile to our babies to be more open?

  • Amanda

    Amanda Ross-White is the proud mother of four beautiful children, including her twin boys Nate and Sam, who were stillborn in 2007. She is eternally grateful to watch her rainbow children, daughter Rebecca and son Alex, grow around her. She is also the author of Joy at the End of the Rainbow: A Guide to Pregnancy After a Loss.

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