New Mexico & Memento Mori

Grandpa’s last family photo.

The invention of the daguerreotype in Europe in the early 1830s, followed by the advent of photography in 1839, gave way to the concept of documenting the deceased on film. In the beginning few people could afford to have photographs taken. Only the wealthy took advantage of this new technology. But the thought of forgetting the face of a loved one justified the expense of paying for such an extravagance. By the end of the 19th century most socioeconomic segments of the population had access to a camera. That’s when photographing the dead became entwined in the grieving process of New Mexico.

Remembering Children

The most common photographs of the dead were those of infants and children. Because of the high infant mortality rate, photos allowed one chance to have a lasting image of the child. The loss of a child was a devastating experience. Some people consoled themselves in the belief that children under the age of eight, who had received the sacrament of baptism, went straight to heaven and became angels. The bodies of these angelitos remained at home for a couple of nights. During this time friends and relatives could visit and pray with the family. Photographs of these children in their coffins, dressed in satin with a floral crown arranged on their head, was the last image that the grieving family would ever possess. Often, siblings and other family members posed with the dead child for the final photograph.  

Living with the Dead

Photographs of deceased family members sat next to photos of the living. These photos held a place of honor in the home and served as a vital part of the grieving process. Photos with the dead were often the last chance to have a complete family photo. For young children who had lost a parent or grandparent it was their last memory of that relative. Like embalming, photographing the dead momentarily stopped the ravages of decay by capturing one final image. In addition to having these photos on display, they became part of the family’s album. When the living people in the photo died a black cross was inked on their chest indicating that they were no longer amongst the living.

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