In “Prophylaxis and Virulence,” Jean Baudrillard writes that disease may be an evolutionary symptom of society’s growing concern with sanitation, that our “bodies are less protected by own antibodies, more in need of outside protection.” In an age when surgery masks are a fashion accessory and hand sanitizer is more commonly available than tap water, we have demonized infection, illness, and, by extension, death. What was once a domestic and normalized process in the 19th century has become othered, relegated to the opinions of experts and put out of sight in ICUs, nursing homes, and funeral parlors.
The amazing exhibit, “Memento Mori: The Birth and Resurrection of Postmortem Photography,” now on view at the Merchant’s House Museum in the Village, brings together an astounding collection of early photographs, daguerreotypes, and silver prints, mostly from the late-19th century from the Burns Archive, of death photography, mixing in ruminations and installations by contemporary artists.
The artifacts themselves are astounding and unnerving: the morbid fascination that accompanies a visitor’s reaction is enough to make one think: parents cradling month-old cadavers in Sunday best, old men posed as though they were reading the paper (Why a newspaper? Is it a talisman of some sort? Did he love reading the paper on a daily basis?). My personal favorite is of a young boy, no older than five, standing over the miniature casket of a baby sibling, his gaze focused somewhere to the left, as though looking for assurance in his discomfort. Or perhaps that’s just my projection on to this young man, who himself is long since dead for sure. (One fact that struck me was the idea that death wasn’t as “decayed” as it is today; often, people died from simple sicknesses like the flu, or at least at a younger age, unlike today when medical science has epically extended the quantity, but certainly not the quality, of life. Death was swift and polite in the 19th century; it is ravenous and relentless in the 21st. Ergo, subjects were much more "photogenic" in these memnto mori.)
The variety of ephemera is also striking: not simply reduced to photographs, there are death announcements (a striking contrast to a birth announcement), poems, charms, frames. Much like any business, there were numerous options available to the consumer, the grieving. There’s something incredibly seductive in this selection: it displays a striking desire to be close to death, to capture it, to keep it close, not only as a reminder of lost loved ones, but also as a reminder to ourselves that death is, to sound cliché, a part of life. Today, we try to keep death as far away, as foreign, and in a way mysterious as possible, which is exactly the impulse that makes “Memento Mori” seem so grotesque on the surface.
But the brilliance of this exhibit catapults the phenomenon into the present, and several artists have been asked to react to the exhibit and install pieces within the museum itself (the Merchant’s House is a beautifully preserved home from the 19th century). Hal Hirshorn used archaic photography methods to recreate a death photograph of the Tredwell patriarch (the family never commissioned one in reality), and leaves the setup of the room as it would have been at the time of his death, not just visually (indeed, the bed you see is the actual bed in which Tredwell died), but sonically and fragrantly. Meanwhile, Marian St. Laurent created a casket and photographed herself in a sort of proto-memento mori, who laments the loss of power and communication in photographic symbology, thanks to the phantasmagorical possibilities available to anyone with a digital camera and a computer. Another photographer, Sandy Puc’, discusses her modern incarnation of memento mori, “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.”
The synthesis of the historical and contemporary examinations of memento mori invoke the wealth of meaning, memory, and emotion we invest in objects. The relation to death in the 19th century provides a strong contrast with an age in which maybe, maybe, we can look at photos of the deceased from when they lived, preferring to maintain a pastness as method for coping with or denying the present. I certainly don’t wish to conclude with a judgment call about social standards between eras; if anything, we are tied together by an insatiable desire to imbue these images with our fears and desires. The photograph, even when untouched (unsanitized?), sets off infinite permutations of meaning and symbolism.