Humans who like the internet, with its endless dazzling display of cat videos, memes and insta-famous celebrities are often also taken in by fake things.
The internet is a world of fake things – in fact it is a world where fake things come to life. Fake News, Fake Revisionist History – step right up folks, you can find it all here.
One of the favourite pastimes of some internet havers is that they like to take photos out of context and pretend that they are something that they are not. This is really evident in the fascination with Victorian Memento Mori, or Post Mortem Photography.
The Victorians had a really healthy view of death (probably because they didn’t have as much going in the way of hygiene, medicine and vaccinations and so there was a really high child mortality rate) and saw it as part of life. ‘Memento Mori’ means ‘Remember that you will die’. Which you will. So will I.
Faced with all this death, the living wanted to remember the beloved faces of their cherished ones and so they would often commission photos of their dead family members and give them out to mourners at the funeral. As photographs were expensive and only photographers and rich people had cameras, these post-death photos were often the only visible record of the way that the deceased looked.
So the knowledge of this, combined with a lot of old photos where people looked creepy and stiff, led to the idea that a large percentage of the people in Victorian photos are corpses who have been made to look alive. And it simply isn’t the case.
15 Fake: Twin Babies Held By Scary Hooded Thing
This rather charming photo of two plump, healthy and alive babies has been touted as a Memento Mori by the internet because the twins are sitting on a deathly, lumpy, shroud thing that looks like the Grim Reaper.
You know what that is?
Probably their mother.
I don’t know if you know what babies are like, but babies who are awake and at this age are wriggly crying machines. I can’t even imagine how hard it was to get both twins not crying and looking at the camera, eyes open, hands down.
If they were dead they wouldn’t need a shrouded mother holding them still, and probably talking to them and singing to them while they sat for the photo. A good indication of living subjects is a hidden mother, at times physically restraining the child, because kids don’t sit still.
Verdict: The children are alive.
14 Real: Twin Boys Sitting On Couch
This is a photo of two brothers, one looking at the camera, with his arm around a brother who is slumped gently against him, his hands folded in his lap. The boys are dressed identically and look strong and healthy.
But there is no reason for the one on the left of the photo to be slumped like that, or sleeping. Babies were often photographed sleeping (which has lead to modern viewers thinking they were dead) but there is no reason for a teenage boy to look like this unless he is dead.
This is a real Victorian post mortem photograph, and the sorrow in the eyes of the living twin tells of how he loved his brother and how sad he is that he is deceased.
I think it is a beautiful photo that the family had taken to remember a beloved son and brother.
Verdict: Real Victorian Memento Mori photo.
13 Fake: Mother, Father And Child
This is a slightly colorized picture of a mother, father and child. The child is still on the lap of the mother and the parents are looking over the top of the child.
This photo has done the rounds of the internet as a post mortem photo of the child, but I question that.
The first reason I have for questioning it is that the father has a very loud striped pant that is not the severe black mourning attire.
The second reason is that the child is wearing a bib and there is a cup with a spoon in it on the table next to the child’s head.
Why would a dead child need a bib to keep their clothes clean?
The third reason is that the child appears to be gripping material in its outstretched hand.
The parents don’t look sad at all, Victorians rarely smiled in photos like we do now. They never duckfaced.
Verdict: A real but misunderstood photo of a family in which they have fed the child until the child has fallen asleep on Mom’s lap so they will stay still for the long exposure time.
Verdict: Not a Memento Mori photo.
12 Real: Bearded Man In Chair
A young man sits in a chair, his head fallen slightly sideways at the neck, which is tied about with a kerchief. The kerchief is weird, it is sort of sticking out and seems stiff.
The young man’s eyes look dead, but that could be because the very bright old fashioned flash washes out light blue eyes.
The position of the head, however leads me to believe that this young man is, in fact deceased, and I actually hesitate to hazard such a guess that he perhaps has a broken neck, and that the stiff kerchief has been used to try to make his head sit up straight for the photo – perhaps the neck has more of a collar on it and the kerchief has been used to try to disguise it.
The picture is quite chilling, with the dead white eyes and the angle of the head.
Verdict: real Memento Mori photo.
11 Real: Boy With White Dog
This is an interesting photo in that there is no question that the boy is alive (although I am sure that if you looked hard enough you could find someone on the internet that insisted that he was dead and painted to look alive) but the dog seems to be dead.
Dogs were popular as household pets during the Victorian Era, and began to move away from having service animal status as a hunting or herding dog and towards the family members that we know and love today. In an era only just coming to grips with the idea that horses had feelings, dogs were still often seen as rather disposable fashion items for the rich.
This dog, however, seems to have been very loved by its young owner, so much so that it was photographed in death so that it might be remembered.
Verdict: Probably a photo of a beloved dead pet.
10 Fake: Girl In Repose On A Day Bed
Why is this girl all laying dead like? She must be deceased. It says so everywhere on the internet.
The girl in question is Alexandra Kitchin, known as Xie (pronounced ‘Exie’) who was an often photographed subject of none other than Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice In Wonderland. Lewis Carroll, real name Charles Dodgeson, was a grown man who had many ‘child friends’ who he photographed in various tableaux and also nude, which sounds terribly wrong to our society but was not such a big deal to the Victorians, who drew quite a line between this sort of artistic appreciation and any physical sexual impropriety.
This photo has been well shared as a Memento Mori photo, but is absolutely not as Little Xie grew up, got married and had six children.
Verdict: Absolutely no one in this photo was dead at the time Lewis Carroll took the photo.
9 Fake: Happy Woman With Rotting Corpse
Are we expected to believe that the Victorians dug this person up for a photo, put a dress on her and happily posed as if nothing was out of the ordinary? Do people now think that the Victorians were not able to tell the difference between a rotting corpse and a living person?
Most importantly – if this was a real picture, who would want to keep this as a memento of a loved one? Its eye is falling out!
No, this is a very fakey fake fake. Please give the Victorians a bit of credit – they did take photos of the deceased but this is just ridiculous. Who is going to put a photo of dear departed Annie up on the wall that shows Annie rotting away.
And why would the dark haired lady in the photo look so happy?
Verdict: FAKEY FAKE FAKE
8 Fake: Pale Brunette Woman Lying On A Lounge Covered In Lilies
Her eyes sunken and her face pale, this woman looks the epitome of a graceful death. She is calm and cold and beautiful. She holds a book and possibly a rosary. Her body is draped in a taffeta bedspread and around her shoulders lies a fake fur stole...
Did the Victorians even have fake fur?
No. They did not. Poor people wore rabbit fur.
It turns out that this is a modern artwork entitled Bridgett by princessrat from the website Deviant Art, and it is very lovely and dark.
This photo is being touted around the internet (not by princessrat) as a genuine Memento Mori photo, which it clearly is not, and people are pinning it on Pinterest and passing it around as a genuine example of death photography.
Verdict: A misused example of a modern homage to Victorian Death Photography.
7 Real: Two Sisters In Plaid
Two beautiful girls on a couch, one attentive and looking at the camera with sad eyes and one seeming to peacefully sleep. They are dressed in plaid dresses.
This photo gives no reason why the girl who appears to be sleeping should not be deceased. She is propped up with a book under her back to keep her in position and her arms are gently draped over her waist. Her face is peaceful.
The sorrow in the eyes of the living sister leaves me no doubt that the older child is deceased, and that the family wanted either one last, or the first photo of the beloved child to be taken before she was buried.
Infant mortality was high in the Victorian era, and in England the mortality rate for children under five was as high as 1 in 4. People had an average of 6 children, probably to ensure they had some children survive to adulthood.
Verdict: Real Victorian Memento Mori photo.
6 Half Real/Half Fake: Gruesome Decapitation
Here we see a lovely photo of some friends who have decapitated a third member of their party with an axe.
One of the things that the Victorians loved was the macabre – look at the popularity of gothic tales and the Victorian interest in the supernatural.
Photography was something that they played with as well as recorded, and before photoshop they had altered photos and dressed up to make fantastic tableaux like this one.
I don’t know much about this specific photo, but it may possibly have been depicting alleged murderer Lizzie Borden or some other horrific drama story.
Modern people, we did not invent the murderer, or the creepy picture, or the doctored image – we just built upon what was already there.
Verdict: This is a genuine photo but the decapitation is fake. Because Victorians were funny.
5 Fake: Four Children With Faceless Mother
This photo has done the rounds saying that either the mother was dead (she’s not, she is holding a child still) or that the little girl standing next to her is dead because her eyes look strange.
Let me tell you something about eyes in these old photos: 1) The flash was much brighter than our flash and it made people close their eyes, 2) Very light eyes did not come out well in the flash, and 3) The photo studios retouched shut or washed out eyes and that made the eyes look a bit strange.
So why is the mother’s face blacked out?
I imagine someone didn’t like her and didn’t want to look at her but still wanted to keep the photo. Pretty sure people still do that.
Verdict: Everyone in the photo is alive but possibly have shut eyes from the flash.
4 Real: Child In Bed With Flowers
The Victorians had a meaningful relationship with flowers, and used flowers in decorations and stories to symbolically represent thoughts and emotions. Sometimes the flowers were placed near a deceased person in photographs, as they are next to this deceased little girl.
One of the ways that you can tell that she is in fact deceased is that she is in bed fully clothed, and she has been placed lovingly as if she is sleeping. Contrary to popular internet opinion, the Victorians did not prop dead people upright and make their corpses stand there as if they were alive, sitting sometimes, standing there like a shop mannequin.
This is a beautiful picture of a much loved child who has passed away before her time, and the photo shows the love and care with which she was tended in death.
Verdict: Real, the child is dead and this is a Memento Mori photo.
3 Fake: Five Children In A Row And The Last One Looks Funny
Here we have five siblings (cousins?) and the last little child looks a bit funny. I say ‘child’ because I do not know if the child is male or female as both little boys and girls in the Victorian era wore dresses and had long hair. There is no simple answer to why they did this, it was culturally appropriate and convenient with toilet training. So the youngest child may be a boy or girl, I can’t tell because small children look the same to me anyway. Especially when they have long curls.
Now the reason they are all standing like that, with their hands stiffly down is because they were told not to fidget and wreck the photo or they would probably get a whipping because Victorian families did that.
The exposure of the photo took a long time, it wasn’t instant like it is now so they had to stay still for a period of time that would have felt like an eternity.
The little one is straining to stay still and probably got dazzled by the flash.
Verdict: Real photo, no one is dead, but young John ruined the photo and got six of the best.
2 Fake: Group Of Young Men Looking Stiff
Here is a group of young men looking stiff. Their stiffness has lead to internet sharers believing that the one in the middle, who is sitting down on a stool of some kind, is actually deceased.
He is not deceased. He is sitting stiffly on a stool in a photographers studio feeling uncomfortable and unnatural as he follows the photographer’s direction not to move as it will blur the photo.
These three young men all look unhappy and uncomfortable because they have to stay in the one position long enough for the photo to be taken, which takes some minutes. They are not smiling because the Victorians didn’t smile in photos.
There is no discernible duckface. And for that we are glad.
Verdict: No one is dead in this very uncomfortable photo.
1 Fake: Baby Being Watched By The Grim Reaper
This is a picture of a baby with a creepy hooded thing looming over the top of it, that the internet has said is an incredibly horrific picture of a dead baby with painted on eyes being held by the Grim Reaper.
Who would do that? That’s messed up.
The hooded figure is most likely the child’s mother who is holding the child still but not being in the photo.
One does not need to hold a dead child still.
The child is holding his own head up and looking doubtfully at the camera because the whole situation is weird and he is not buying it. He is a super alive and healthy looking little boy!
Verdict: Please. Obviously this is a living child who is the picture of health.