Post-Mortem Photography In The Victorian Era

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“Many people experience the feeling of the uncanny in the highest degree in relation to death and dead bodies and to the return of the dead” (Freud 241). One example of this is post-mortem photography from the Victorian era. In the Victorian era (1837-1901) death came early and often due to high infant mortality rates, death in childbirth, poor hygiene, and contagious diseases (Jalland 4-5). Furthermore, most died at home among family, giving people more exposure to death (Henger 6). A stereotypical view of death in the nineteenth century was one of the ‘beautiful death.’ Romanticism transformed death from the fearful to the beautiful as Victorians glorified the act of dying and the deathbed scene (Jalland 8). Mourning in this period was even…show more content…
The first reaction to these types of photographs is shock. Although postmortem photography occurs today, it is unusual. When people today come close to death, they feel awkward and lost do not know how to act, largely because they are removed from death and dying. We feel uncomfortable and uneasy at the thought of the deathbed (Henger 42). This uncanny feeling is multiplied when looking at postmortem photography from the Victorian period. Because the mourning process is less involved and intimate, the mourning momentos seem odd to modern people. The loving and intimate aspect of postmortem photography is so far removed from the modern perspective, that it is a complex combination of emotions: familiar, yet unfamiliar; uneasy, yet feeling the love in the images. Photographing the dead is truly uncanny for those in the modern era.
The uncanny is a complex theory, so much so, that even the definition is complicated. Ernst Jentsch’s "On the Psychology of the Uncanny" gave two definitions: 1) Uncanny represents the fear of the unfamiliar; 2) Uncanny is based on intellectual uncertainty. In German, uncanny translates to unheimlich, with heimlich meaning canny or homey and unheimlich meaning uncanny or unhomey (7-8). Jentsch attributes the sense of the uncanny to the recognition of an uncertainty in our ability to distinguish the animate from the inanimate (Cavell
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“… the difference between the waking world and the world of dreams, or between natural things and mechanical things, or between the masculine and the feminine, or between the past and the present. A difference in which everything and nothing differs is uncanny” (Cavell 166). Cavell argues that the uncanny is constantly a part of the world and ourselves and that we have to try to differentiate between the animate and inanimate, although it is impossible to fully distinguish the two. He focuses on the idea of seeing others as other and acknowledging them as separate and animate subjects. According to Cavell on differentiating between the animate and inanimate: “…there are no marks or features or criteria or rhetoric by means of which to tell the difference between them. From which, let me simply claim, it does not follow that the difference is unknowable or undecidable. On the contrary, the difference is the basis of everything there is for human beings to know, or say decide (like deciding to live), and to decide on no basis beyond or beside or beneath ourselves.” The separation of animate and inanimate is impossible until one acknowledges the separateness of the other; another person is not just an extension of
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