A History of Postmortem Images and the Role of Recordkeeping in Grieving

As part of a larger project studying recordkeeping in online grief communities, this paper focuses on a particular form of recordkeeping undertaken by bereaved parents. Starting with a review of recent discussions concerning parents’ sharing of photographs of their deceased children in online forums, the paper attempts to trace the longer history of such sharing. Some anthropologists have suggested that the affordances of Web 2.0 are engendering new attitudes toward grief and death; with the ability to connect to other grieving parents and share records and memories in an open, online forum, bereaved parents are seen to be breaking taboos that surround the experience of child death. This paper considers this assertion, especially in relation to the often overlooked but significant historical practice of making and displaying images of deceased children, as for example in commissioned portraits in the 16th and 17th centuries, and in daguerreotype and other photographic processes from the 18th century onward. As it traces this history, the paper considers the cultural factors that influence the degree to which such representational practices are accepted or hidden and reflects, broadly, on the role of recordkeeping in grieving and on the ways in which representational technologies affect that role.

Jennifer Douglas is a Lecturer at the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto, and has published on the principles of provenance and original order, on writers’ archives, and with Heather MacNeil, on archival description as rhetorical genre. Her current research explores the role of recordkeeping in online grief communities.