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The Massacre of the Innocents: Victorian Post-Mortem Portraits

In Victorian England, 15-20% of children died before their first birthday. In one city, Preston, the year 1844 saw 45% of the city’s total deaths being in children under the age of 5. Many poor families were forced to bury their dead in their own backyards because graveyard space was at a premium (and still is today). Infant mortality in this era was massive, and the medical system was scrambling to figure out how to prevent it. Disease, malnutrition, pollution, and poverty were the most common causes of death for people of any age in the 1800s. Although most families understood they were almost guaranteed to lose a child at some point, those losses weren’t any easier than they would be today. At the same time, advances in technology saw the rise of photography, and some better-off families who had suffered a loss would commission portraits to be taken of their dead loved one. Siblings would be propped up on stands, with their brothers and sisters holding their cold little hands. Parents posed with dead children, mothers and children gathered around dead fathers, and husbands lay next to dead wives. In some of these portraits, the living appear a bit blurry from the vibration of spirit, while the deceased are perfectly in focus, dead still. These people may have died more than a century ago, but because of these portraits, they’ve continued to have their existence honored and recognized by generations far into the future, a fate they couldn’t have imagined as ordinary citizens.

Written By

Meghan MacRae grew up in Vancouver, Canada, but spent many years living in the remote woods. Living in the shadow of grizzly bears, cougars and the other predators of the wilderness taught her about the dark side of nature, and taught her to accept her place in nature's order as their prey. She is co-founder of CVLT Nation.

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