The man on the motorcycle is dead. He was twenty-two, a motorcycle enthusiast, murdered and from Puerto Rico. His wish was to be embalmed and posed this way and his wish, like the wish of another murdered twenty-four year old in this country (posed standing upright in his mother’s living room for three days), was upheld. The secret to all of this, said a funeral director, is in the “special embalming”.
However bizarre this may seem, the practice of posing dead people in various tableaux is not new. It was popular in the Victorian Era when family members couldn’t afford cameras and wanted their dearly departed to be immortalized, although it was also practiced by the wealthy. It is suggested that upon Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria went into such an intense period of mourning that grief, now in vogue, became literally showcased in the bereaved mainstream. As a practice, it can be seen as an extension of memento mori (“remember you will die”), a practice of inserting images of the dead in paintings and sculpture on tombs as well as on cathedrals. Christianity embraced this sentiment as it is especially moralizing and wishes to teach the woeful idea that life is short, tempus fugit, and you better not sin.
Although creepy through modern eyes, it must not be forgotten that death was a frequent visitor in homes at this period. Infant and childhood mortality were common and children saw death as a part of life. Today, death and children are kept as remote from one another as possible as lost ones release their spirits in hospitals and nursing homes.
All of the people in the photographs, save a few, are dead. The deceased were held upright using special stands with clamps, their eyes propped open or pupils painted unconvincingly on the photographs. The girl at the top of the article is a fourteen year old in her wedding dress. Her name was Margaret Rose. The bottom image of a man and child, ostensibly father and son, are both deceased.