Post-Mortem Photography

Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping Beauty Post-Mortem Photography | Sleeping beauty in sepia 1890

By today’s standards the practice of post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture or mourning portrait) might be considered somehow creepy but once put in its proper context, it will come out as a completely different picture.

 Born together died together nothing more perfect neither girl looks to be dead.

Born together,died together nothing more perfect neither girl looks to be dead. Hand painted eyes on the photograph did the trick. Stunning.

Post-mortem photography is the taking of a photograph of a deceased loved one and was a normal part of American and European culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It has nothing to do with images of violence, crime, or war. Death, and personally dealing with death, was prevalent throughout the entire world as epidemics would come quickly and kill quickly. The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 made portraiture much more commonplace, as many of those who were unable to afford the commission of a painted portrait could 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.

So alive...
So alive…  The eyes are… real!
In this photograph, the girl standing in the middle is the deceased. The photographer attempted to make her look more alive by drawing on her pupils.
In this photograph, the girl standing in the middle is the deceased. The photographer attempted to make her look more alive by drawing on her pupils.

Eyes were painted afterwards by hand on the photographs so that the deceased would look alive, that is why it is sometimes hard to distinguish between the living and the dead. The most common practice was still to make them look as if they were asleep. Small photographs of the deceased were often carried in lockets or kept close to the body for greater intimacy.  As photography was a new medium this new practice most likely flourished during photography’s early decades among clients who preferred to capture an image of a deceased loved one rather than have no photograph at all. This was especially common with infants and young children; Victorian era childhood mortality rates were extremely high, and a post-mortem photograph might have been the only image of the child the family ever had.

Father and son
Father and daughter/son.

The practice eventually peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century and died out as “snapshot” photography became more commonplace, although a few examples of formal memorial portraits were still being produced well into the 20th century. A thorough history of post-mortem photography can be seen in the award-winning Sleeping Beauty book series, which showcases the memorial and post-mortem photography collection privately held by Dr. Stanley B. Burns and the Burns Archive.

Complete Family. Unkown. So sad.
Complete Family. Unknown. So sad.
The Keller Family: Emil, Mary, and 9 month old Anna Keller. Mary shot Emil through the heart, mortally wounded Anna, and then committed suicide. Gelatin silver print. Auburn, New York, January 25, 1894.
The Keller Family: Emil, Mary, and 9 month old Anna Keller. Mary shot Emil through the heart, mortally wounded Anna, and then committed suicide. Gelatin silver print. Auburn, New York, January 25, 1894.
postmortem top
Photos by José Rodrigo and J. Suárez, ca. 1870
Frank. Dead girl, Daguerrotype, June 1857
Frank (?) Dead girl, Daguerreotype, June 1857  
Fernando Gordillo, Catafalque in Pedro Bernardo, 1969
Fernando Gordillo, Catafalque in Pedro Bernardo, Spain, 1969
Sleeping for Eternity
Sleeping for Eternity
Example of a postmortem photo where eyes have been painted onto the girls eyelids so it appears her eyes are open and that she is alert.
Example of a postmortem photo where eyes have been painted onto the girls eyelids so it appears her eyes are open and that she is alert.
Family portrait with the recently deceased younger sister propped up at the end
Family portrait with the recently deceased younger sister propped up at the end.
Fernando Navarro, Mourning in Totana (Murcia), ca. 1905
Fernando Navarro, Mourning in Totana (Murcia), ca. 1905
A deceased young girl and her dolls.
A deceased young girl and her dolls.
Again with the dolls
Again with the dolls
Victorian-death-photography1
No dolls.

Haunting.

By Tobe Damit
By Tobe Damit
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43 thoughts on “Post-Mortem Photography

  1. Tobe, Very well done and informative. I had no idea about this until a few years back when I went to a special exhibit at a museum in Williamsburg. And then I was at a wake and someone came in to take a photo of the body in the coffin. I thought is was odd until I learned about the old tradition. The photo was being sent to relatives in Canada who could not get to the funeral. Clare

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow was this long ago?? Cuz it’s not that uncommon to take a pic at the funeral, in fact its quite common.. What was more uncommon was to make them look as if they were still alive!!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Creepy! The picture with the kids (younger one on end passed) must have scared those kids for life. I can’t imagine what the parents thoughts or feeling were while holding there dead child for a picture either. Frilling creepy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely!!! It’s hard for us to imagine what was going in people’s mind… I guess it has to do with something like ” Everybody’s doing it..” or something along those lines… But even then…When it comes down to actually staging a picture like this one… It comes to mind that sometime during the process, someone must have thought ” God!! This is creepy!!”… But I will not judge them for I wasn’t living during those time but I have o say I find it easier fathom to imagine when the deceased looks like he/she is sleeping… Or in the coffin…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful and haunting. I know that today when a baby is still born mothers are encouraged to have a photo taken of the baby as well as have the foot print done – it helps in the grieving process and is thought to offer not only closure but also a sense of acknowledgement that the baby did exist. This was a very touching post. I know we look at it as creepy, but consider the time – when people were dying from diseases and illness we simply can take a pill for today. I imagine it was a very sad time for those who lived through it, yet it was so common place no one questioned it. I wonder if they found any sense of closure from these photos.

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    1. Well it was a way to keep something of a clear memory for them because back then when you had a kid there wasn’t automatically a photograph lying around…The only options were a painting and a photograph was still a luxury item so, specifically in the case of a child’s death, this post-mortem photo was most likely the only image they had of this children, besides of course the one they had in their memory but we all know that with time and an eventful life, these images in our memory tend to fade. So I think yes it helped healing but more it left a significant trace that they once were…. This is so sad isn’t it??? So in a more general way, as creepy as it looks to us today, yes it surely was a gesture of respect and a way to honor the ones who had passed…. TY for not seeing this as a creepy freaky exhibition. I didn’t see it that way after the initial shock of course..

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The pic of the two twin girls standing is not a post-mortem pic. They are very much alive. Corpses could NOT be stood up. Posing stands were used for live people to stay still. You really should educate yourself more.

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    1. No I said you possibly could be right on this. My research have told me differently. I agree to disagree and may the readers find their own answer. What I did say is that you could be more polite. But you seem to be having fun. Wouldn’t want to spoil it. Go on!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. No I can deal with it. Otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you. I would have unaccepted it and deleted it but I gladly accept criticism, At least I TRY most of the time to treat people as if they would be there in front of me, respectfully.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. TY so much for the correction! It’s deleted. I’m glad this post raised some questions AND brought answers! I know this must still seem creepy and revolting but like I said, those were different times, for some families this was the only chance they would get to have an image of their loved ones.

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    2. Wow, what a sport you are! I thought blogs were for exchanging information and knowledge. You call anyone who takes time out of their day to share more information with you a complainer. Since you’re so sensitive and get butt hurt so easily, maybe you should try something different.

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    3. It was my initial first 30 seconds reaction. I than changed and edited it to what it is now. You managed to retain that 30 seconds thought against me instead of noticing what really matters: the message that I wrote right after this without even noticing that I had changed it? Or is it because you saw an opportunity to rant about me and decided to ignore the message I left ultimately??? Jeeez….You really bring out the best in people. You are clearly obsessed STIMPY!!!. You’re plain mean. Just try to be a little more tolerant or polite. Maybe sometimes my first reaction would be to talk to people the way you do. But I don’t because they are respect worthy human beings too. And I wanna be able to talk without jumping on every little bad thing they do. Please stop! I don’t have to put up with your shit. If you think I’m too sensitive because I don’t go out on a rant with you, or too boring?? Well I’m sorry then.. On passe a un autre appel…

      I have an open mind. Just be , you know… kool.. I’ll be glad to talk to you

      Peace out!

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    1. Have you ever seen this old movie narrated by Burroughs?? EPIC!! So funny too.. Burroughs adds a little sarcasm of his own… Don’t mean to be pretentious. I just thought you’d find it funny even this is still a little creepy too but tbh I think my whole blog might sound/look a little creepy?

      Liked by 1 person

    1. TY so much!! I just stumbled on it and thought it was a very interesting (weird by today’s standard). I studied photography too! My About Me page is on the top left side titled: Tobe/Not To Be and there’s some stuff I did back then…When the digital world wasn’t part of amateur photographs.. It’s a different light..really… Anyways hope you like some of it too and thanks so much for dropping by and liking this article!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve worked with Victorian collections for many years. About half of the photos you have displayed are photos of live people. The Victorian standing postmortem is an internet myth. Stands were only used to help keep Victorians still for long shutter exposures. I have actually done real research on many of these photos. For instance, I know the family who had the photo of the girl leaning on the older couple in their collection. The girl was not dead. Her eyes have been punctured by a pin in the photo though, giving her that odd look. There were Victorian postmortem photos but none of the subjects were standing or sitting upright with eyes focused on the camera. To learn the real background of these photos visit http://dealer042.wix.com/post-mortem-photos

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    1. Thank You so much for ceorrecting me on the subject. I believe you 100%. I am very grateful that you eook the timne to provide me with the right information, it is greatly appreciated. It’s all in your honor that you took the time to really go deep into the subject. Will modify my post accordingly. You have been very helpful. Have a wonderful Sunday! Tobe

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  6. I took several pics of my mother moments after she died Sept 7, 2012. I felt the need but have looked at them only once and that was just a few weeks after her passing. Thanks for your recent visit to my blog.

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  7. I did not find this creepy at all. It was a little heartbreaking and sad. I don’t care that some of the photos were of live people; how could you know without extensive research? You have shared with us a practice I had no idea existed. I learned something new (or is that old?) today. It makes perfect sense to me that parents would want a memento of their dead child. These days, kids are photographed from birth. The need has disappeared.Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. YVW! I find this totlly normal too considering it was their last chance to get an image of their loved ones. Thanks for understanding them Dinata!! Peace Out from Montreal!

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  8. I had never heard of this before, although it does make a lot of sense given what they had to deal with at that time. A tad creepy by today’s standards and practices but I think I can envision a need for this form of closure back in the day. Thank you for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your Very Welcome! The cocnclusions were given me to people. You can read it in the comments. In fact its one of my rare post that I keep because of the comments! People really don’t comment often and it’s so important. The blogoshpere is full of people who have too much to say to just use facebook! I think it is kinda me. I liked your blog. I visited it a lot when you liked one of my post.
      I bacame a follower.

      Liked by 1 person

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