Post Mortem Photography

Culturally speaking, the tradition of post mortem art predated photography, was a common practice within wealthy groups of people. This was essentially thought of as maintaining a sense of life after death, in children and adults alike. Before the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, post mortem portraits, generally presented at funerals, were limited to those wealthy enough to afford a painter[1]. After the daguerreotype became a common societal resource in 1841, this practice of maintaining life through photography became accessible to the general population, and even was representative of technological advantages in preserving bodies. By 1850, the cost of a daguerreotype was only twenty-five cents, making post mortem photographs a widespread cultural phenomenon.

Typically, these photographs were associated with mourning rituals and commonly involved deceased children or infants, due to the unfortunate childhood diseases at the time. The people of the Victorian time period are typically associated with an obsession of death. It was a huge part of their culture, as the average life expectancy was significantly lower due to poor hygiene, disease, and lack of prenatal care. A historian by the name of Gorer suggested, “It can have been a rare individual who, in the nineteenth century with its high mortality rate, had not witnessed at least one actual dying, as well as paying their respect to “beautiful corpses”; funerals were the occasion of the greatest display for [all] classes.”[2] This obsession was famously portrayed by Queen Victoria, as she mourned the loss of her husband for nearly four decades. She wore mourning attire and followed his daily routine as if he was still living. The reason why death was so apparent in Victorian society is as simple as the high mortality rate due to disease and labor conditions. Carol Christ, an expert on the Victorian fascination with death explains, “In London, in 1830, the average lifespan for middle to upper-class males was 44 years, 25 for tradesman and 22 for laborers. Fifty-seven of every 100 children in working class families were dead by five years of age.”[3] Mourning was also heavily ritualized, requiring women to mourn for years at a time. Mementos, including post mortem photography and locks of hair from the deceased were kept around the house, in memoriam of them.

Deceased Child
Photographer unknown, photo circa 1850

[4]

Though the practice of photographic the dead may be seen as strange in today’s society, it was accepted throughout the entirety of Victorian culture as a way to celebrate the person in life. Some were strategically posed in a lifelike manner, “sometimes the subject is seated upright on a chair or couch with its hands crossed in its lap and the eyes closed,”[5] and often placed by their loved ones as a sort of final family portrait. Objects, such as a child’s favorite toy are placed around the body, to create a more lifelike appearance. This was common when there were no other photographs of the deceased. According to historians Andrea M. Patawaran-Hickman and Rachael Wintering, these photographs were often the only ones ever taken of their loved one, meaning it was their only source of remembrance of that person, “As unusual as it may seem to us today, post-mortem photography used to have strong sentimental value to living relatives.  For some people, the deceased photograph of the individual may have been the only photograph ever taken. The photograph may have been one of the few tangible objects in which the family members could memorialize the life of the deceased.” Essentially the portrait was seen as a sense of preservation or immortality, the overwhelming thought of the time being that remembrance was of utmost importance for family members and future generations.

 

African American woman holding her deceased child Photographer: Jaynes, A. D.
Circa 1860-70

[6]

Another common way of photographic the deceased, which was more prevalent in adults and used frequently in the latter half of the nineteenth century, is the “last sleep” position. The departed were photographed in their beds or sofa, often immediately after passing. They were frequently covered by a sheet with pictures of the entire bodies being minimal, as the common practice was close ups. These photographs were less personal, “Rarely is the photograph personalized, i.e., designed to convey something about the deceased as an individual. Even when objects are present, they look more like standard props used to enhance the composition than the personal property of the deceased.”[7] The ideology behind photographing the deceased to look like they were sleeping is suggested by historian James Farrell that death itself is natural and gentle, similar to falling asleep, he quotes “to be more than probable that the final act of dying is as simple and painless as going to sleep- and practically, we all die daily, without knowing it, when we go to sleep for the night.”[8] This pose was used as an attempt to blur the divide between life and death, maintaining the Victorian obsession with maintaining a person’s life after they have died.

The cultural tradition of Victorian death photography exhibits the psychological process of mourning for people of this era. Victorian’s are known for being obsessed with death, and the average Victorian funeral often involved “show and expense”[9]. Victorians staged photos with their deceased loved ones and even took photos with their “spirits” (ghost-esque figures added to typical portraits) in order to preserve the life and idea of their family member. This social norm helped to ease the grief many families felt but could not display, since expressions of grief were looked down upon because of strict social constructs for morning periods. These photos also encouraged those who looked at the photographs to empathize with the loss of the individual.[10] A post-mortem photograph was considered an homage to the deceased, and was intended to honor his or her life.[11]

Logistically, families would take the corpses of the deceased to dress and pose those corpses in ways those individuals would have in their lives. After the first post-mortem Victorian photograph was taken in 1841, it became essential for photographers to be trained in the art of post mortem photography.[12] Photographers shared tips and tricks to help with tasks such as moving the body, opening the eyes, and turning the eyeballs so the corpse appears to be looking in the proper direction. Images might also be manipulated after the photo was taken in order to paint pupils over the eyelids or make the subjects look more alive. Photographs at the time took 20 seconds of motionlessness in order to achieve a clear photograph, so deceased subjects were, in a way, ideal.

Post mortem photograph of a deceased child with her siblings

[13]

In some cases, subjects were dressed in clothing they had worn in their life or with objects that they once enjoyed, like a toy or blanket for a child. This helped to preserve the idea and personality of the individual in their life after their death. Later, as the trend of post-mortem photography began dissolve, photographs began to exhibit loved ones in mourning with the clearly deceased individual rather than the idea of attempting to preserve the life of the dead. Often, photographers would pose subjects as if they sleeping because it was less challenging. Presenting deceased subjects also preserved the idea of death being the individual’s “last sleep.” It was easier to cope with and understand that individual’s death if the individual’s eyes were closed than if they were open. People of the Victorian era hid the idea of death from these photographs, and instead represented the deceased as somewhere in between life and death.

The perception of photography throughout history has changed alongside advancements in cameras and their accessibility. As photos become less of a commodity, the perception of a single photo’s significance has changed. The current social state deems taking pictures of the dead as “disrespectful and crass, and it comes across as an invasion of privacy”[14] . However, post-mortem pictures in the Victorian era were a respectful and beautiful way of remembering the dead. Comparison of the context surrounding the shift in ethical acceptance of these photographs will explain how the perception of post-mortem photography has shifted.

Post-mortem portraiture in the late 1800s and early 1900s were a part of the grieving process. High mortality rates for the Victorians also contributed to the normalization of post-mortem portraits as the family could place their deceased within a domestic context to aid in grief.[15] These portraits were elaborately planned and deceased would take great care in crafting a picture that is both respectful and serene. The ethical debate surrounding post-mortem photography during this time was not as divisive as the images were “a reminder to loved ones and visitors alike that the deceased remained a presence in the world of the living”[16]. However, as time passed and the attitudes towards post-mortem photography became something ‘morbid’ and less acceptable to the public.

The transition to morbidity was spurred by advances in medicine and the commercialization of photography during the 1920s. As illness transitioned from a home setting to a hospital setting, death became more public. As medical teams became more involved in disease, the family became more removed from the processes of death and as treatments progressed, families became more uneasy with the thought of death. This involvement of a doctor made death seem less intimate and places it in a more scientific context that decreased the niche for post-mortem portraiture.[17] As technology continued to advance, photos became more accessible and more commercialized leading to the threat of widespread scrutiny if a picture were released. During this time, pictures of war began circulating and images of war contributed to the grim circumstances surrounding death. This shift in the perception of death caused people to abandon the practice of post-mortem portraiture, radically reducing the ethical acceptability of this previously common practice.[18]

Post mortem family portrait circa 1840s

[19]

After a long period without personal use for post-mortem photograph, photographs of the dying reemerged in the 1980s as publications of Kübler‐Ross’s On Death and Dying in 1969 and the hospice movement by Dame Cicely Saunders began circulating, reducing the fear and grim connotations behind death. As neonatal death became more frequent, there was an insurgence of families taking pictures of their children as a method of grieving.[20] Modern society’s view of the appropriateness of a picture has changed drastically throughout the past century, in many ways society has come full circle. However, as cell phones expand accessibility of pictures all over the world and social media spreads the reach of a photograph, the moral and ethical question of photographing the dead can shift even more moving forward.

 

 

[1] Christian, Kelly. “The Unpleasant Duty: An Introduction to Postmortem Photography.” The

Order of the Good Death. March 09, 2016. Accessed April 08, 2019. http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/unpleasant-duty-introduction-postmortem-photography.

[2] Ruby, Jay. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT,

[3] Hunter, Lyn. “A Victorian Obsession With Death Fetishistic Rituals Helped Survivors Cope

With Loss of Loved Ones.” Berkeleyan. April 05, 2000. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/2000/04/05/death.html.

[4] Ruby, Jay. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT,

[5] Hannavy, John. Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography. Vol. 1. London: Routledge,

  1. http://home.fa.utl.pt/~cfig/Anima%E7%E3o%20e%20Cinema/Fotografia/Enciclopedia%20of%20the%2019th%20Century%20Photography.pd

[6] Christian, Kelly. “The Unpleasant Duty: An Introduction to Postmortem Photography.” The

Order of the Good Death. March 09, 2016. Accessed April 08, 2019. http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/unpleasant-duty-introduction-postmortem-photography.

[7] Patawaran-Hickman, Andrea M., and Rachael Wintering. “Cultural Context and Post-Mortem

Photography–Honoring President Lincoln.” Visual Rhetoric UNC Charlotte. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://pages.uncc.edu/visualrhetoric/projects/still-photography/group-one/.

[8] Hunter, Lyn. “A Victorian Obsession With Death Fetishistic Rituals Helped Survivors Cope

With Loss of Loved Ones.” Berkeleyan. April 05, 2000. Accessed April 08, 2019. https://www.berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/2000/04/05/death.html.

[9] Cadwallader, Jen. “Spirit Photography Victorian Culture of Mourning.” Modern Language

Studies 37, no. 2 (2008): 8-31. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40346959.

[10] Summersgill, Lauren. n.d. Family Expressions of Pain in Postmortem Portraiture. Studies in

Visual Arts and Communication: an international journal. Accessed April 8, 2019. http://journalonarts.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/SVACij-Vol2_No1_2015-Summersgill-Pain-and-Portrait.pdf.

[11] Borgo, Melania, Marta Licata, and Silvia Iorio. 2016. Post-Mortem Photography: The Edge

Where Life Meets Death? Italy: De Gruyter. https://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/hssr.2016.5.issue-2/hssr-2016-0016/hssr-2016-0016.pdf.

[12] Christian, Kelly. “The Unpleasant Duty: An Introduction to Postmortem Photography.” The

Order of the Good Death. March 09, 2016. Accessed April 08, 2019. http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/unpleasant-duty-introduction-postmortem-photography

[13] Bell, Bethan. “Taken from Life: The Unsettling Art of Death Photography.” BBC News. June 05, 2016. Accessed April 09, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-36389581.

[14] Mayne, Debby. “What Pictures You Should Never Post from a Funeral.” The Spruce,   TheSpruce, 29 Jan. 2019, www.thespruce.com/funeral-photo-etiquette-3571900.

[15] Hilliker, L. (2006). Letting Go While Holding On: Postmortem Photography as an Aid in the

Grieving Process. Illness, Crisis & Loss, 14(3), 245–269.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/105413730601400303

[16] NYGARD, P. & REILLY, C. (2003). The american family and the processing of death prior to

the 20th century. In C. D. Bryant & D. L. Peck Handbook of death & dying (pp. 567-574)

[17] Bown, Nicola. “Empty hands and precious pictures: post-mortem portrait photographs of children.” Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies 14.2 (2009): 8-24.

[18] Ruby, Jay. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT,

[19] “Post-Mortem Portraits.” The Dabbler. August 01, 2013. Accessed April 09, 2019. http://thedabbler.co.uk/2013/08/post-mortem-portraits/.

[20] Ennis, H. (2011). Death and digital photography. Cultural Studies Review, 17(1), 125-145.

https://search.proquest.com/docview/874498562?pq-origsite=summon

 

Nicole Fortin, Cee Cee Huffman, Kim Nguyen

 

2 Comments

  1. I loved your post about post mortem photography! I especially liked how you talked about how views on post mortem photography have changed from the Victorian era to now and how we have almost come full circle. I feel like we still view it as offensive, except in the neonatal case that you described. I think this comes from the fact that as a culture, we in the United States are so far removed from death now that it feels wrong to take a picture of the dead.
    A few months ago I visited a plantation house in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and during the tour, our guide showed us a painting of one of the daughters from before photography was invented. In this painting, half of the girl was painted to be alive and split down the middle, the other half was painted to be dead. The girl had died of some sort of illness when she was a child and it is really interesting to see that even though this was before the invention of photography, the wealthy would still try to honor those that died with painting the deceased after their death.
    An additional perspective that you could take would be to look at how other cultures view pictures of the dead. Like how in class we have looked at the immense intricate funerals that other cultures have that has developed into a tourism market. Do people from this culture think of it has a way to learn more about their lifestyle, or do they find it offensive and unethical? Great post! I loved reading your thoughts on the rise and fall of post mortem photography!

  2. What struck me most about your article was the presence of contrasts- you write about how death was relatively common, particularly in Victorian ages, and how because of this it was very present in the public consciousness, yet also note how mourning processes surrounding these deaths were heavily ritualized and often went on for very long periods of time. This makes me wonder if death was somewhat normalized and accepted, or if it was something to be feared or anxious about (as it is in many Western cultures today) despite a Victorian “obsession” with death. When reading your article, I also thought a lot about present day applications and cultural views on post mortem photography. For example, in my pod’s research process, we came across a lot of photographs of bodies that were either newly dead or relatively decomposed. Though the deceased in these photographs were not explicitly staged in the ways the bodies in your posting seemed to be, it could be argued that there was still some degree of “staging” in the sense that many of these photographs were taken to fill a specific purpose (to evoke a particular reaction in a news article, to provide forensic evidence, etc.). Both these examples and those in your posting made me think about whether these bodies are serving to fulfill a need of the living, and what the ethical implications of this might be. In continuing this comparison between past and present conceptualizations of post mortem photography, you say that the photographs you analyze in your post are meant to be a continuation of life after death. I would argue that present day death photography seems to be something of the opposite, as it seems to have more of a sense of finality. As an ending note, I am wondering if these more modern interpretations of this practice are also considered “art,” or if they take some other form? How are you defining art in this context?

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