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.