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The Truth Behind Victorian Post-Mortem Photography

A look into the amazing practice of photographing the dead in the 19th century

What is Victorian Post Mortem Photography?

In the Victorian era (1837-1901), in most of Europe and America, photographing the dead was common practice; an expensive service provided by photographers as a special way for families to preserve the memory of their loved ones.

When someone died, they would be placed in the home for viewing until the funeral. While there, flowers would be placed all around the body not only for the visual but to disguise the odor of decay. Sometimes there were so many flowers, one couldn't see the actual subject.

Some tidbits you probably didn't know was that there was much superstition around death in those days. Here are some examples:

1. You had to cover all the mirrors with black fabric when someone died because it was feared that the mirror could steal the spirit and keep it

2. You weren't allowed back into society for the first two years after a death.

3. All clocks were stopped in the house at the exact time of death.

4. Widows wore black for at least four years after the death of a husband but most chose to wear them forever.

The trick of the photograph was to make the deceased seem alive. Great preparation was made to ensure they appeared to be alive in the photographs, or at least appear sleeping.

For the most part, it was a denial of death but it was very popular and it helped many people deal with their grief, as what Psychology calls Acute Grief.

The photograph process used was called Daguerreotype, which was essentially an image placed on a piece of silver, an expensive luxury that not all could afford at that time, ergo, the post-mortem photos belonged to the wealthy, at least until the 1850s, when more and less expensive forms of photography were introduced. By the 1860s, most everyone was able to get this done and they did.

The demand was high and the fees by photographers followed. Many times than not, a very difficult economic sacrifice had to be made by the family in order to acquire these stills. Due to the requirements of the photograph, it was always more expensive than any other regular portrait. There were many pain staking elements that went into the preparation of each shot. First of all, the photographer had to come to the subject.

Since most people died in their beds, it would become their last image in photo and this was mostly the fact for children, since the infant mortality rate was much higher then. What family wanted was the last image or memory to keep of what they looked like right before they died or doing something they loved. Most children were pictured “asleep” in their beds, while others wanted a family photo cradling their deceased child or sitting or standing by them. In fact, post-mortem photographs were many times the only photographs of children under the age of one because the mortality rate was so high. Many of them were identified as “anonymous” in the photos.

Posing of the body into these positions was tricky but very ingeniously done. The photographer would go to the home, where the body was already dressed by the family. The photos were rarely taken of a body inside the coffin, instead posing as the family saw fitting. But by the last half of the century, undertakers became involved in the routine funeral arrangement we are all accustomed to now and no more photographs would be taken with the body outside the coffin.

Another element was that the subject was made to look as they did while living, depicting them in their every day life. For adults, it was what they did for a living and for children, it was either sleeping or playing with their favorite toys. Eyes were closed on most and they would hand paint open eyes on their closed lids.

The stand used to prop up the bodies resembled a doll stand. It would hold the body upright, and tied with belts around the chest and waist areas underneath clothes. Other times, the family would pose and hold up the deceased or let them rest their heads on them, leaning in as if resting. They would be able to hide the stand behind a full dress, so with women it was easier to hide. But on children or men, it was easier to detect the stand if you looked by their feet.

For us, this practice may seem very morbid. But in a time where children passed away long before their parents, where the average age of an adult was 29, this was a very comforting practice, to be able to hold a memory of a loved one a few hours or days after they have died was very much desired. It's a still image of something they can hold on to and keep forever. What's it for us to shake our heads at this, when surely in years to come, someone will probably shake their heads at us for putting makeup on our deceased or writing RIP on our vehicles or tattooed to our skins. It is relatively similar in the whole mourning process and each of us finds our own way to grieve.

Now next time you see an old Victorian photograph, you should take a closer look. The subjects may not all have been alive.

Many videos can be found on youtube. Below is one that may be disturbing to some because there are children, so it's not for the faint of heart. Still, the photos were done quite tastefully.

Collection of Post-Mortem Photography

Comments

Dawnella66 LM on April 17, 2017:

I love reading about this, as I find it interesting learning about different ways people coped with life and death in times gone by. Great read!

Dominique Cantin-Meaney from Montreal, Canada on January 11, 2016:

I knew that this was a common thing to do at this point, but that I was it. It was interesting to learn about it. Thanks for sharing.

poetryman6969 on March 13, 2015:

Taking a selfie with the dead seems creepy. But I understand how it happened.

Susanna Duffy from Melbourne Australia on August 23, 2014:

I have my great grandmother's photo album which holds pictures of her own grandparents. There are five dead children in there that I can see, but there may be more of this photography custom.

Vivian Sudhir from Madurai, India on June 22, 2014:

It is so touching yet it wonderful the way photos preserve those moments. Nice article.

Rose Glenn on April 13, 2014:

This was an excellent article. I like how you mention that by modern-day standards we find this practice morbid and disturbing, however, 100 years from now people might say that our "open casket" viewing, putting makeup on a corpse, and other death rituals are equally as morbid! I have felt that way all my life and to this day cannot attend an open casket funeral or wake. I prefer to remember my loved ones as they appeared in life!

Rosana Modugno (author) from 11th Kingdom on November 02, 2013:

Thank you for appreciating this. I appreciate your feedback as well and your own personal note. Your parents were wise indeed.

James Brown from United States of America on November 02, 2013:

My parents never sheilded us from the reality of death. We we taught that death was a blessing in disguise but you had to wait your turn for the blessing. In other words - don't commit suicide expecting a blessing. Live life to the fullest until your name is called in the heavens. Great post - thanks for sharing

Rosana Modugno (author) from 11th Kingdom on September 03, 2013:

Thank you for your comment. One thing out of the way; I don't take photos that don't belong to me without authorization from the website or mention in my articles. FYI: I wouldn't post them on Facebook. If they are public as you say, I wouldn't trust other people out there to be as morally equipped as I am.

I didn't have to look at all of them to notice most are in fact post-mortem. You're right to point out when the face is "off" or the hands don't look right. There are a few you can see the stand clearly while others barely, and the women with puffy dress skirts most likely were deceased and the stand hidden behind it.

The close-up shots most likely are not post-mortem simply because they were more prominent in full length photos because the family wanted their entire body in the memory. The children, yes, unfortunately, were deceased.

And there were a couple where they were posed doing something they loved to do while alive, like that one with the man reading and it was too dark to see the stand, I saw it behind the table/feet. They would almost always put something around the stand like curtains or tables or chairs, to "hide" it.

These are highly collectible at this time, so first place I'd check would be for an antique dealer in my area, call or email and see if they have a specialist in post-mortem photography. You can check out Ebay, where many antique dealers sell and buy, giving you an idea on price range. The silver ones of course will be worth more than the paper. Good luck!

SamanthaScarlette from Scottsdale, Arizona on September 02, 2013:

Hi, I found two photo albums of victorian relatives in my grandmothers basement when I was 16, I forgot about them until recently, and went through them taking photos of each photo etc. I came across one where the guy looked kind of weird. I knew about Victorian post - mortem photos (but just the sleep like ones), and google info on them to see if it was possible the man was dead. After reading about it, and then re-examing my photo albums, to my horror it came to my attention that it's possible the most of the people in the albums are possibly dead, due to rosy tinted cheeks, and stands behind them. Is there any expert on this subject or someone who could tell me if the people in my photos are in fact dead? Here's a link to the photos on my Facebook (its set to public): https://www.facebook.com/SamanthaScarlette/media_s... Please DO NOT take any the photos without my permission, as these are members of my grandmothers family(most likely direct relatives).

Rosana Modugno (author) from 11th Kingdom on April 05, 2013:

Death has always fascinated me and once I hooked into the topic, I had to write about it. Glad you enjoyed it and thank you for commenting.

Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on April 04, 2013:

This was certainly interesting because I did not know about this practice; however, I did know from studying death and dying in college that the way death was viewed so long ago was more of an act of facing it than we do now. It is feared more now and I don't know how often we even discuss this part of life with growing children until they lose a grandparent. Very interesting subject. I'm really just amazed, especially with the stands used to prop up persons.

Rosana Modugno (author) from 11th Kingdom on February 07, 2013:

Thank you so much. Glad you enjoyed it.

tattuwurn on February 07, 2013:

Tweeting this one. Creepy, yes, but nevertheless fascinating, intriguing, heightening my curiosity. Up and interesting, shared. :)

Rosana Modugno (author) from 11th Kingdom on January 31, 2013:

It is creepy, yes. I seem to be attracted to the strange. Thanks for the comment, for sharing & for following!

vibesites from United States on January 31, 2013:

Really creepy!!!! Sent chills and shivers down my spine.

Even the pictures of the ones alive doesn't diminish the creepiness factor.

It's really interesting to look at this practice I've never heard before or imagined. It was an art to make those cadavers look like they're still alive, all for posterity purposes. But good thing though the practice had stopped.

I like the amount of work and research you put into this, unusual but great hub!

Up, interesting, shared and a following. :)

Rosana Modugno (author) from 11th Kingdom on December 09, 2012:

Thank you. Coming from a photographer, your comment is well received. I have always known about this and it has always fascinated me. And yes, look at your photos closer now.

Cindy Pierre from Nevada on December 09, 2012:

This just blew me away! I am a photographer & come from a family of photographers. I always enjoy looking at very old photos but now I might just look a little closer. Well written and very informative! Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

Rosana Modugno (author) from 11th Kingdom on December 08, 2012:

Thank you for your comment. I have always been intrigued by this.

BrightMeadow from a room of one's own on December 08, 2012:

Disturbing and sad. You think of all of those poor, young families who lost their babies and sat with them for one last photo. Very well researched. Very informative hub.