Attitudes Toward Death
The Impact of Photography During the American Civil War on Our National Psyche
By Terry L. Martin, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Thanatology, Hood College, Frederick, MD
Images are pictures. In our culture pictures have become tools used to elicit specific and planned emotional reactions in the people who view them. Consider the role of images in modern advertising. This was not always so. When the photographic display, the “Dead of Antietam” was first displayed in October of 1862 few could have imagined its impact—an impact that propelled a nation to rethink the value and meaning of warfare. In turn, our national attitude towards death began to change as well.
Philippe Aries, the French historian, outlined several major eras representing differing attitudes toward death as well as the dead (Aries, 1981). The first period, dating from the 5th through much of the 16th century he called the “tame death.” This era was marked by a general acceptance of death and a reduction in personal fears of mortality. This was largely due to death being a public phenomenon, witnessed by one’s family, friends, and neighbors. The general collective belief was one of eternal rest in the bosom of a merciful and loving God.
The next era began during the early part of the 13th century. Several events coincided to usher in a very different set of attitudes. The presence of earthly courts and judges, along with the rise of individualism, brought a fear of personal mortality, especially with the prospect of eternal punishment. The first (and deadliest) of the bubonic plagues cast Western Europe into a frenzy of fear and superstition. Aries labeled this period the “death of the self.”
From the end of the 17th century and through the 19th century, attitudes toward death again began to change. This was particularly true for the United States during the antebellum period. It climaxed with the drama of the American Civil War. During the late part of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th, the death of others began to again overshadow the individual’s perception of her or his own death. Death was romanticized, depicted as a human companion in art and literature (Aries, 1981). Dying and life after death were believed to be beautiful, peaceful experiences. One romantic depiction of death compared it with the emergence of a butterfly from a cocoon. According to DeSpelder and Strickland (2009), “a secular hope for immortality and eventual reunion with loved ones became more important than churchly images of heaven and hell” (p. 96).
This period was labeled the “death of the other,” or “thy death”—thus once again death was tamed (Ariès, 1974; 1981). Mozart reflected the views of his time in a letter to his father in 1787:
As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling! And I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity . . . of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness. (Anderson, 1966, p. 122)
This romantic, familiar attitude toward death began to change again during the latter part of the 19th century. During the late 19th century and into the 20th century, modern Western culture began to view death as a fearful, forbidden occurrence (Aries, 1981).
Perhaps, the true nature of the carnage of war, as portrayed by the photographic collection “the dead of Antietam” hastened the move away from Aries “death of the other” to the current period of “forbidden death.” This was in sharp contrast to the use of photography for momento mori.
Memento mori is a Latin phrase translated as “Remember your mortality”, “Remember you must die,” or “Remember you will die”. It gradually evolved into a way of remembering the beloved dead.
After the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, many people had photographs taken of recently dead family members. Given the technical limitations of daguerreotype photography which required long exposure times, this was one situation where the portrait subject remained quite still.
For those who were unable to afford the commission of a painted portrait, they could still afford to sit for a photography session. This cheaper and quicker method also provided the middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones.
These photographs served less as a reminder of mortality than as a keepsake to remember the deceased. This was especially common with infants and young children; Victorian era childhood mortality rates were extremely high, and a post-mortem photograph might be the only image of the child the family ever had. The later invention of the carte de visite, which allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative, meant that copies of the image could be mailed to relatives.
The earliest post-mortem photographs were usually close-ups of the face or shots of the full body and rarely included the coffin. The subject was usually depicted so as to seem in a deep sleep, or else arranged to appear more lifelike. Children were often shown in repose on a couch or in a crib, sometimes posed with a favorite toy or other plaything. It was not uncommon to photograph very young children with a family member, most frequently the mother. Adults were more commonly posed in chairs or even braced on specially-designed frames. Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types.
The Dead at Antietam
By 1862, Mathew Brady’s gallery of photography in New York City had gained distinction for its portraits of the famous and was the place for society’s well-heeled to gather to see and be seen. Despite the gentile nature of his guests, Brady was about to commence an assault on the accepted method of displaying photographs of the dead. In October, 1862, Brady launched an exhibition entitled “the Dead of Antietam.” Some 20 of the more than 100 photos were so graphic that later Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was inspired to condemn the photos that viewers would want to “lock it [the horror produced by the images] up in some secret drawer, that it might not thrill or revolt those whose soul sickens at such sights.” Ironically, Holmes had visited the battlefield searching for his son, future Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who was wounded during the battle.
The photographs were the result of a visit to Antietam battlefield during the days following the greatest single day’s loss of military life in United States history, September 17, 1862. The bloated and mutilated corpses of humans and animals were photographed by Alexander Gardner, an associate of Brady (and a later competitor). This display of death was alien to those who expected death to be photographed in the momento mori tradition. One can only speculate the impact that viewing photographs depicting violent, gruesome death had on the psyches of those who ventured to gaze too closely upon them.
It was perhaps this introduction to real combat death that hastened the arrival of Aries’ final (and current) era of “forbidden death” (also known as “death denied”). The deaths of the military and civilian victims of the first and second world wars, the holocaust, and the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan assured that the period of forbidden death would survive. How does the current period of forbidden death impact our attitudes… and our individuality?
The Terror of Death
“Here we introduce directly one of the great rediscoveries of modern thought: That of all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death” (p. 11). Thus began Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book: “The Denial of Death.” Death remains the biggest threat as well as the greatest challenge to humanity. It is the single universal event that affects all of us in more ways than we care to know (Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1986; Yalom, 2008).
Both meaning-making and social construction is unique to the human animal. Consequently, death has evolved into a very complex and dynamic system, involving biological, psychological, spiritual, societal, and cultural components (Kastenbaum, 2000). Whatever meanings we attach to death may have important implications for our sense of safety and security. Thus, at a personal level, death attitudes matter: Death defines personal meaning and determines how we live (Neimeyer, 2005; Tomer, Eliason, & Wong, 2008).
Thus, the true impact of the “dead of Antietam” collection altered death attitudes of the past and lingers on in our psychological present.
Anderson, E. (1966). The letters of Mozart and his family: Chronologically arranged, translated, and edited with an introduction by Emily Anderson (2nd ed.). New York: Macmillan.
Aries, P. (1974). Western attitudes toward death: From the middle ages to the present. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Aries, P. (1981). The hour of our death. New York: Knopf.
DeSpelder, L. A. & Strickland, A. L. (2009). The last dance: Encountering death and dying (8th ed.). Boston: McGraw/Hill.
Greenberg, J., Pyszczynski, T., & Solomon, S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), Public self and private self (pp. 189–212). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.
Neimeyer, R. A. (2001). Meaning construction and the experience of loss. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Tomer, A., Eliason, G., & Wong, P. (2008). Existential and spiritual issues in death attitudes. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Yalom, I. D. (2008). Staring at the sun: Overcoming the terror of death. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.