Victorian 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,

  1. file:///Users/nicolefortin/Downloads/Dont_Move_-_A_Short_History_of_Post-Mort.pdf

[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

12 Comments

  1. Though these photos were taken as a method of grieving, it’s interesting how many similarities are shared with other pictures of that age — pictures that were not taken in the same context. Other family portraits in the victorian era involve black clothing as well and similar facial expressions. Smiling was not a common theme in victorian photographs, even if the family may have been happy at the time.

  2. It seems as though relationships with technology over time either reflect or influence our relationships/perceptions of death. In the Victorian era, with photography as a still relatively new technology, photographs were seen as being a respectful way of remembering the dead; it happens to be that these photographs were taken of deceased individuals, but that reflects the lack of a common status for photographs (they were seen as much more special). As photography has become more widespread and immediately available, it might be that photographs of the deceased while they are deceased are interpreted as “crass” because there were so many opportunities to take photos of the deceased during life, as well as because technology seems an intrusion on the idea of a final, peaceful resting state. Technology, and specifically photography, is no longer considered as special or rare as it was during the Victorian era; today we are inundated with forms of technology, and seem to regard death as a realm that is separate from all of that.

  3. It is incredible to see how much society has changed in just over a century our feelings towards death. It was interesting to see just how involved people were with their loved ones’ deaths and all the people involved in the rituals that followed. It sharply contrasts typical death procedures in modern times of giving the bodies away to strangers to deal with almost immediately following death. It makes you wonder when did the miasma theory become so integrated with our society’s actions in response to death.

  4. Well done incorporating the three perspectives together, The flow was good, and it kept the reader’s attention until the very end. I loved the explanation as to why people grew more distant from photographing the dead as the families grew less involved, and doctors more with the process of death. I thought it was very considerate of you guys to include the background with daguerreotype photography.

    The post-mortem pictures can be classified as a subsection of memento mori photography. Memento Mori itself is a Latin phrase that translates into “remember, you must die,” and it is usually shown with skulls. For memento mori photography on the other hand, the phrase is expressed simply by capturing the dead in a photography portrait. Amazingly enough, the idea of taking pictures of the dead had spread outside of England as well, and it would be worth mentioning briefly at least to show that the practice did gain ground outside of England.

    I think to do a full round on the topic, it would also be important to consider what has replaced photographing death in contemporary times. It was mentioned in the article that photographing the dead was a way of mourning in the Victorian era until the ill were hospitalized more often starting from the 1920s. During and post this transition, was there another practice that replaced photographing the dead? Since the practice would have carried on for approximately seventy years at that point, I imagine the change wouldn’t have been so easy to adapt to even if it were gradual, especially because it involved grieving for loved ones.

  5. This post does an excellent job morphing all of the perspectives into a continuous narrative. However, I feel that there could have been more said about ethics- specifically about the ethics of photographing a corpse. Does the deceased have any say about whether they’re ok with this sort of posing? Is there general autonomy in the decision to choose whether or not to have the photo taken?

  6. Rebecca Burton

    April 24, 2019 at 2:41 pm

    Your post was extremely interesting! I really liked how you not only included the option for post-mortem art before photography, but also how you discussed how this type of art was only an option for the wealthy, high class families. I had never heard of this type of art before this class and your post, so your post did a great job of explaining what this art was, how it was created, and why people wanted this type of art. I also really liked that you included so many photographs in your post. While these pictures may be hard for some people to look at, I think they were extremely helpful to see just how this art was portrayed in many different ways. In these photos, the deceased can be depicted as dead, or for the most part, are portrayed to still be alive. In one of your photos, the deceased child was made to look as if she was standing with her siblings. These pictures allow your post to have provide both a written and visual understanding of post-mortem art!

  7. This post was extremely interesting to me because it seems so unusual to a modern mind. I love how you even addressed that “practice of photographic dead may be seen as strange in todays society” only to counter it with it was an accepted way of grieving in the Victorian Era. I also thought it was kind of ironic when you mentioned that this form of photography was seen as a way “to celebrate the person in life,” considering that the person is already dead at the time of the photograph. As I continued reading, I found myself thinking the practice was less and less weird. Those in the Victorian Age did not have cameras on them at all times to capture all the moments of that individuals life, so taking the time to document the end is a form of respect. It was also interesting to me that this is considered a way to maintain life after death. The picture has the capability of surviving much longer than the person, so their story can travel with it because a picture is worth a thousand words. Would the dead have preciously consented to this photograph being taken?

  8. Its interesting to see how photography was used as a method of commemoration in the past, and how different it is from today. I particularly liked how you noted how photography is used in a much different way than it is today when it comes to death. How families would use photography by putting items the dead enjoyed, and also photos of families posing with the corpses of dead bodies was shocking to me. It is interesting, as you noted, that this was considered a respectful practice at the time.

  9. I had no idea that over half of 100 children were actually dead before five years old. That is super sad to me; no wonder parents wanted to take pictures of their dead children. I’m also kind of surprised that this was practiced as much as it was, and that its still kind of a common practice now, because honestly it seems like a super traumatizing thing to experience. I couldn’t even see someone in a coffin without having nightmares. Back then, people were really superstitious too. Some people believed that having a picture taken of dead people could accidentally capture their souls, so I’m really shocked at how many people would “risk” this with their loved ones.

  10. My project was on civil war photography and there are a lot of similarities between post-mortem Victorian photography and Civil War photographs. You guys talked about how these photographs were taken in order to remember and commemorate the dead. Civil war portraits also did this, because many of the soldiers went off to war, never to return. They had their photographs taken in order to leave a legacy and for their families to remember them. This is similar to what you guys talked about with these portraits of dead individuals. Both examples are used to commemorate the dead and honor their memory. You also talked about how these images were posed. Civil war photographs were also posed in order to covey each individual’s personality.

  11. People’s attitude towards photographing the dead did change dramatically as time goes by. In our pod’s article: Visual and Photographic Representations of the Dead in Ancient Egypt, we also discuss the ethical debate of taking photos of the Egyptian mummies when discovering them. Today, people think photographing the dead is disrespectful, while people in the victorian era believe the opposite. Your article explains it well, and the addition of photos really adds to the point.

  12. I really enjoyed this post. I think this post did a good job of discussing Victorian culture, as well as the grieving process and reasons as to why those in the Victorian-era took photos with their deceased loved ones and had a slight obsession with the macabre in general. I was surprised to learn of the high mortality rate of the Victorian era and appreciated how ya’ll incorporated the influence of photography and technology and how that impacted the process of post-mortem photography. How do you think technology is changing death today?

Leave a Reply

© 2019 Death & Dying III

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑