A Death Photo is Worth a Thousand Words

This rare photo shows how a corpse was posed for post-mortem photography

A Death Photo is Worth a Thousand Words

Post-mortem photography is one mourning ritual that did not survive the Victorian era. These photographs (also known as death photos, mourning portraits or memorial portraits) were, as the name implies, taken of a deceased person.  (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)

They were popular almost from the invention of photography until around 1900 when it became possible for ordinary people to own a camera. From our 21st century perspective, these memorial portraits seem strange, if not morbid, but the Victorians saw them differently.

“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 particularly high,” Post-Mortem Photography says.  “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.”

In some families, the death photo was the only photograph a family would have of their loved one. It was meant to be used as a fond reminder of a loved one, not to provoke sadness.

How Were the Photos Taken?

This rare photo shows how a corpse was posed for post-mortem photography
This rare photo shows how a corpse was posed for a post-mortem photograph

Bodies were arranged as if they were alive, often posed with living family members. Other photos featured bodies in bed surrounded by flowers or even in their coffins; these often were of infants or children.

In many of the photos, the deceased do indeed look alive, but in others there is something just a bit creepy about seeing eyes in a blank stare or limbs hanging awkwardly.

To mimic life, the deceased was posed using props that kept the body upright. Eyelids were either propped open or the eyes were painted on.

“Place the body on a lounge or sofa, have the friends dress the head and shoulders as near as in life as possible, then politely request them to leave the room to you and aids, that you may not feel the embarrassment incumbent should they witness some little mishap liable to befall the occasion,” a photographer said of his task in 1875.

Photographers developed tricks to assist them in their work.  They experimented with lighting and photo retouching.

6 Examples of Post-mortem Photography

The following are examples of mourning portraits.

1.  This family sadly has lost twins.

Parents and three siblings pose with dead twins

2.  A deceased girl in her family’s parlor.

A dead girl posed in her family's parlor

3.  The center woman looks drunk, but she’s actually dead.

Three friends, one of them dead

4.  This girl is posed as if she is just waking up from a night’s sleep.

Dead girl posed as if stretching

5.  A dead boy in his bed surrounded by flowers.

A dead boy in his bed surrounded by flowers

6.  Did this woman have, say, smallpox, or has she started to decompose?

A death photo of a woman that looks like she is decomposing

The WWI Trilogy by Melina Druga
The WWI Trilogy by Melina Druga: Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year

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Updated: 14 October 2020
Melina Druga
Latest posts by Melina Druga (see all)
Melina Druga is a multi-genre author with a lifelong love of history, books and the English language. She pens historical fiction, chick lit and nonfiction.

2 thoughts on “A Death Photo is Worth a Thousand Words

  1. How sad to see the children in coffins. I think photos of children who have died, whether they were stillborn or died when they were older, are still taken by many families to remember the child they’ve lost.

    I think the death photo custom was probably just the next logical step to take after the very old tradition of the death mask. I know that death masks were not as common, but perhaps that is what started them thinking of the photos in the first place?

    While photographs of the deceased are not a common thing anymore, nor are death masks, I do know that funeral parlors offer a number of options for memorializing the deceased loved one after they’ve been buried. For example, there is a necklace they make with an imprint of the deceased’s thumb or fingerprint on one side.

    1. I’m not sure how the first post-mortem photos began. It could have been inspired by death masks. Or possibly it was the result of one clever photographers marketing campaign.

      Death jewelry was once in fashion, too. Perhaps it’s making a comeback. Everything old comes back again, or so the saying goes.

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