Representations of children's death in Brazil, in the eighteen hundreds
The study of the representations about death and what it entails, the fatal, colective passage from life to the unknown, gathers us immemorial in rites that denounce the desires and the mentalities of the time and its people. It's true that the death events related to children usually trigger a particular comotion and, in the late 19th century, when in Brazil photography was taking its first steps, the practices surrounding children's deaths took on a different level, creating a surprising imaginary community where the beyond is the first motto of being alive.
Even though the practice of photography was still a novelty restricted to wealthier families and, therefore, a bit rare, historian Luiz Lima Vailati, in an article for the “Anais do Museu Paulista” magazine was able to gather a series of pictures of dead children, dated between 1865 and 1895. This is a rather shocking material whose force shows brutal relevances about the S. Paulo society and, to a degree, Brazil's society as a whole in the 1800s. We have access to rituals that, to our addicted eyes seem absurd. But first: Why photograph dead children?
The overexposure of death and dead people at the time was stronger with each wake, crowded with relatives, neighbours, strangers and all sorts of people - in a movement that I am sure can still be found within regions dominated by Catholic tradition. The showing, the presentation of the deceased was already founded in the hundreds of reasons that can gather an audience around someone you can speak ill of, well of or, simply, of. However, when it comes to children, what you understand is a different desire: innocent, free from the doubt about descending to hell, the little ones appear glorified, can carry requests, and are called "angels".
Vailati explains that the organization of the burrials of children, seemed to be created for an audience, so that they could be seen by all. They actually took place in the morning whereas the wake of adults took place in the evening. There were processions, visits from the little angels to people's homes, even through the use of biers where they carried the children, in an image that is almost too difficult to imagine. It's possible that photography came as an alternative when laws stated being implemented to stop these rites from taking place.
Jerônimo Bessa and Militão Augusto Azevedo photographed, among their other works, the small angels from S. Paulo in a sensitive documentation of their young bodies that, because they weren't separated from their souls (or so it was believed), were decorated like divine beings. Flowers shaped like crowns, one last serene look, dressed like saints (according to the author, if a child was called Francisco, they would be dressed like S. Francisco), cares from parents who wished to see their children looked after in the next world where, certain of their salvation, they would ask for the ones who stayed behind. They would ask for grace, forgiveness and, if possible, more children to comfort them.