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Post Mortem Photography: Memorializing of the Victorian Dead

Jason Ponic works in the exciting world of Hollywood film and television by day and writes by night.

Two parents pose for their one and only family portrait with their deceased daughter, a likely victim of scarlet fever or tuberculosis.

Two parents pose for their one and only family portrait with their deceased daughter, a likely victim of scarlet fever or tuberculosis.

Thought Process

Today, more photos are taken every 24 hours then were taken during the entire 100 years of the 19th Century combined. So it's hard to imagine the mindset of these families as they pose alongside their dead kin. At least at first. Let's strip back the digital age of selfies and panoramas and look at this through Victorian Eyes. Imagine, this as the earliest craze in the history of the medium, as common as the 'selfie' is today. In the early days, post modem photography flourished.

1839 marked the inaugural year for humanity's obsession with photography as the invention of the daguerreotype ushered in a cheap and practical way for families to take portraits. Once only the rich and famous could afford a commissioned family portrait, now just about anyone could have a a single photo taken. With a dip into the family savings, a single photograph could immortalize a particular second in time and those in it.

In the 1800s, mortality rates were astronomical, especially among children. Disease, starvation in some cases, climate, lawlessness, all could take a person's life without warning. In a time when medicine was primitive and expensive, people of the era embraced death in ways that simply escape comprehension today. One of those ways was photographing those who died. Said photo would likely serve as the only record of the subject, dead or alive, it was an easy decision for families to make.

Complex bracing devices were devised to support the dead.

Complex bracing devices were devised to support the dead.

The Process

Some photographers became so good, some subjects were nothing short of, well, lifelike. Elaborate braces and supports were devised to prop the dead body into a variety of sitting or standing poses. While the use of these devises have been widely debated in historical communities, the end results area nothing short of bizarre. The dead were often bathed and dressed in their best clothes. In some freaky cases, eyeballs were painted over the subject's closed eyelids to give a more lifelike appearance. Eventually as the idea of post mortem photography became more commonplace, the process became simpler and less freaky. Posed photos gave way to simple shots of the subject laying in state, a more 'normal' idea.

An early post mortem photo showing three people holding up the dead body. The third is holding the head.

An early post mortem photo showing three people holding up the dead body. The third is holding the head.

An example of the subject sitting.

An example of the subject sitting.

A mother with her deceased daughter.

A mother with her deceased daughter.

The little girl on the left is the dead one.

The little girl on the left is the dead one.

A creepy example of a very good post-mortem. Clues that the subject is deceased is the discoloration occurring in her hands and unnatural position of her fingers.

A creepy example of a very good post-mortem. Clues that the subject is deceased is the discoloration occurring in her hands and unnatural position of her fingers.

Comments

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on June 04, 2015:

It's like you said, there were some seemingly strange practices back then, but I think a lot of it has to do with the commonality of death.

Fascinating article.

Ann1Az2 from Orange, Texas on December 15, 2014:

I've always been of the opinion now a-days that if you wanted a picture of someone, you get it while they are still living. I've known people who have taken pictures of people in their caskets I guess to send to those who couldn't make it to the funeral. At my funeral, there will be no pictures taken. If they didn't get one while I was living, they don't need one when I'm dead!

Times were a lot different back then, though, so I can understand why people thought differently, although I still find it somewhat morbid for someone to pose with their dead child.

This is interesting and you came up with some outstanding photos to back up your research.

இڿڰۣ-- кιмвєяℓєу from Niagara Region, Canada on December 13, 2014:

Although this seems morbid for us today, the Victorian's view being this practice was quite normal. As you have said, the mortality rate then was high, especially so for infants and young children and this type of photo was the only thing a family would have of them. It is still done today but without the incredible poses, now showing the deceased lying in their coffin. A very interesting topic. Thank you for sharing and wishing you the best. Kim

CJ Kelly from the PNW on December 13, 2014:

Both interesting and disturbing. Death was an everyday occurrence in those days and losing a child was very common. I can't imagine anyone posing with their dead child today.

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