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.
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.
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.
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.