Editor’s note: Death as a part of life is a theme previously covered by the Chronicle in the form of a column by Jo Mathis: “Letting Go: Many ways to say good-bye to a loved one after death.” And the topic surfaced tangentially at a recent forum for candidates in the Democratic primary for the state House, when they were asked to comment on a state law requiring death certificates to be signed by a funeral director. In her regular local history column for The Ann Arbor Chronicle, Laura Bien takes a look at the role photography played over 100 years ago in documenting the deaths of children.
It was an era without personal cameras, much less digital memory cards storing thousands of shots. The 19th- and early 20th-century family photo albums in the Ypsilanti Archives often contain only one expensive formal studio portrait of each individual family member, or a single economical group portrait.
Child mortality was high. When a child or other family member died, families would on occasion arrange to have a photograph taken before burial. Sometimes it was the first and last photograph they would ever possess of their loved one.
The fifty-odd family photo albums in the Ypsilanti Archives contain about a dozen examples of these poignant memento mori.