Post-mortem Photography - A History

A Morbid Momento or Apt Memorial?

Post-mortem photograph of a boy surrounded by flowers

Post-mortem photography is often difficult for modern-day audiences to understand. Why would anyone want a photograph memorializing their loved one while he or she is propped up on chair or lying on their deathbed?

Like many other historical artifacts, understanding post-mortem photography requires an understanding of the surrounding culture, context and era. During the Victorian era, photography was on the rise thanks to the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839. This made portraiture more accessible. For the middle class who were often not able to afford a painted family portrait, the cheaper and quicker method of the daguerreotype suddenly made memorializing loved ones an attainable reality.

Post-mortem photograph of a bishop in Syria

Anyone with a Facebook account knows how commonplace childhood and family photos are today. Most phones come equipped with a high-definition camera. Parents create online galleries and websites devoted exclusively to the regular growth and activities of their children. Imagine a time when families didn't own a single photo or painting of their loved one. The childhood mortality rate of the Victorian era was particluarly high. For many of these grieving families, a post-mortem photograph may have been the only image of their child they owned.

Also, travel was more difficult for mourners, so the photographs allowed distant family members to see their passed loved ones in the event they were unable to attend the funeral.

When one considers the culture surrounding these photos it provides a context for better understanding post-mortem photography and its place in history.


Characteristics

postmortem photograph

Many early post-mortem photographs depict the departed in life-like poses. Children are often seen in cribs or beds, surrounded by flowers and their favorite toys or personal items. Adults are often propped up in chairs or seen standing, usually supported by special frames. Later photos may include coffins and groups of mourners, especially if the deceased was a priest or public figure.

Sometimes mourners are included in the photos, especially when children were the subject. Due to the long exposure time required for taking the photos, the living members move around a bit, causing them to appear blurry or in less sharp focus than the deceased. This can create an almost ethereal effect.

 

- Article by A. Paul Myers