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?
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.
2. A deceased girl in her family’s parlor.
3. The center woman looks drunk, but she’s actually dead.
4. This girl is posed as if she is just waking up from a night’s sleep.
5. A dead boy in his bed surrounded by flowers.
6. Did this woman have, say, smallpox, or has she started to decompose?
Updated: 14 October 2020