"We Don't Die any Differently Now Than We Did Back Then" : Victorian Post-Mortem Photography and Gender Performance

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Johannsen, Zoe
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Throughout history humans have had an interest in death, an interest in the how and why, pursuing answers through religion and through science. The English relationship with Death changed a lot during the Victorian Period. As the population boomed, and modern medicine developed, people's death became more traumatic to a family. Adults began to live longer, while the child mortality rate rose. Death needed to become a way to remember both those who had lived long and those who had not lived at all. The Victorians lived in time in which the Protestant Church and the medical community worked hand in hand to promote the moral and medical health of the parishioners. At the same time, Victorians began to work to answer the philosophical question of consciousness, and the idea of a 'thinking body' began to supplant the 'immortal soul' ideology. The Victorians were deeply interested in the human body, in the soul, and in the boundary between life and death. These values can be seen in the mourning rituals that permeated the Victorian age. The intense and patterned rituals of widow ship, the imagery and pageantry of the wealthy funerals, all contributed to a culture surrounding death that has not been forgotten today. This combined with a growing interest in photography and quickly developing photographic technology, led to the beginning and popularization of Post-Mortem Photography. In this paper, the analysis of the photographs taken by Victorians is done in an attempt to answer the question of how gender and death were related in the Victorian life. Gender played an important role in the actions of the Victorians, as an ideology of separate spheres controlled them. It was not unusual for the act of mourning or the practices of death to be as heavily gendered as they were. Death, like birth, baptism, and marriage, was a social event that dictated performance and presentation. The Victorians were deeply interested in death, and to them the preserving of a family member's immortality through photography was very important. These photographs show how the Victorians viewed their dead and the relationships between the dead and the living. Death was women's work and death rituals were heavily gendered, and women and girls appear in most Post-Mortem photographs. These photographs were some of the only ways for people to remember their dead, and in many ways, may have been the first and only photo of that person. By looking at Post-Mortem photography from the Victorian age we can see and understand the very gendered rituals of death that were changed in relationship to photography and how gender appears in photographic context even after death. Studying the relationship between gender and death allows us a greater understanding of the importance on and in life of gender and gender differences.
iv, 38 p.
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