REVIEW – Beyond the Dark Veil : Post Mortem and Mourning Photography from the Thanatos Archive – Jacqueline Ann Bunge Barger
Grief is an odd and difficult thing. Until recently I was lucky enough not to have lost anybody close to me, and when I did, the raw rip of grief was something I struggled to understand even as it devastated me. It isolates you in your pain, and yet it unites you with every human in history.
Never has every human in history felt closer than when reading this collection of Victorian Post-Mortem and Mourning Photography, from the Thanos Archive.
This is a beautiful volume, the kind that is a pleasure to hold in your hands as you run gentle fingertips over the shallow embossing on the cover. I really felt it was a thing of great importance before I even opened it – a feeling which only grew as I read, going through all 200 thick pages in one sitting and almost breaking my own heart.
There’s a theory I’ve always liked, that when you die, you live on for as long as there is somebody to remember you. You survive in memory, if not in spirit, which is one thing which makes this collection of Victorian mourning photography so hauntingly beautiful. By locking eyes with the long past dead or nearly dead, do we resurrect their souls, allowing them to live on for as long as we remember them?
Probably not. But the theatre of Victorian mourning is something beautiful, and the culmination of habits humanity has refined over millennia. These traditions, as explained in this hefty tome, fell out of favour during the first and second World Wars, when so many died it would have been too much mourning for society to take, and the fear was it would break the nation’s spirit.
For a book mainly comprised of high quality prints, it’s an absolute trove of information, and I gleaned four pages of notes from my read-through. I always think it’s easier to learn fact by reading fiction or watching a documentary – something immersive rather than dry – and this largely picture-based book had the same sort of effect. It’s learning by osmosis rather than forcing facts into your brain and hoping they stay there.
This post has been a real struggle to write. Nothing has flowed as it should, and I know I haven’t done this book justice. It was the most powerful and moving thing I have ever read, and several times during my read-through I wondered why I was putting myself through it. It isn’t necessary to immerse myself in so much death. Perhaps it isn’t wise, either. But the more I learn, the more fascinated I am by the culture which surrounds it, and the history of people’s association with death. It fascinates us all, it is the great unknown. The tradition with which we surround death is the culmination of millennia of trying to understand what we can never hope to.
I recommend this book whole-heartedly. It isn’t an easy read, but there is something to be said about confronting your own mortality in so forthright a manner. Similarly, there is something oddly comforting about seeing the preserved memories of those who had been so loved, still showing that love after over a century later. Like these 200+ people, perhaps we will not be forgotten, even when those who knew and loved us have long since passed.