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Memorial Photography or Postmortem Photography

Updated on October 15, 2011

A Look at Photographing Those Who Have Died

While many people do not think of photographing loved ones after they have died, the practice of memorial postmortem photography or photographing a loved one after their death was common practice in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Memorial Photography or Postmortem Photography was an integral part of the mourning and memorializing process during a time when death played a more visible role in a person's day-to-day life.

This old practice is being revised, particularly with baby and child's death, to help create a lasting photographic memory for the parents.

Photo Source: Joël Dietlé. Old Camera. Royalty Free Use.

This lens and many of the recommended links

are *not* recommended

for the newly bereaved.

Special Note from the Lensmaster

Not for the Newly Bereaved

Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, I have elected to feature images of old cameras and old photographs of live persons not of the dying. However, some of the books selected on this topic, display images of those who have died.

Those interested in seeing postmortem or memorial photographs photos should visit the various resources included on this lens. You may also want to carefully search through Youtube for Videos clips on Postmortem Photography. Be advised that these images you may find can be disturbing to some people.

This lens and the websites that the lens links to are not recommended for the newly bereaved or those who have recently experienced the loss of a loved one.

Postmortem Photography

Postmortem photography, photographing a deceased person, was a common practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Photographing a loved one after their death was common practice in the 19th and 20th centuries, an integral part of the mourning and memorializing process, when death was more a part of people's daily lives.

In the United States Postmortem portraits from after the 1940s are quite rare due to changes in American funerary practices and attitudes about death changed. Postmortem photography did not remain a part of the accepted memorial and mourning process. Many people feel that material evidence of a loved one's death would prolong grieving and postmortem photography was not considered a normal practice in mainstream American culture.

In recent years, however, some have begun to argue that taking photographs, particularly in the case of neonatal and infant death, can have a therapeutic effect for a grieving family.

Source: Gone But Not Forgotten. PBS Special, A Family Undertaking.

Photo Source: Janusz Gawron. Very Old Camera. Royalty Free Use.

Gone But Not Forgotten - Memorial Photographs - A Special P.O.V. Program from PBS

The site includes links to some of the classic types of Memorial Photographs taken of people who had died.

Note: This feature contains graphic images of death that may not be appropriate for all viewers. Discretion is advised.

Post Morteum Photography on Wikipedia

Post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture or memento mori) is the practice of photographing the recently deceased.

History and popularity

The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 made portraiture much more commonplace, as many of those who were unable to afford the commission of a painted portrait could afford to sit for a photography session.

This cheaper and quicker method also provided the middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones, and this was also an effective way of getting a person to "sit still" long enough for the extended exposure times of early photographs.

These photographs served less as a reminder of mortality than as a keepsake to remember the deceased. This was especially common with infants and young children; Victorian era childhood mortality rates were extremely high, and a post-mortem photograph might be the only image of the child the family ever had. The later invention of the carte de visite, which allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative, meant that copies of the image could be mailed to relatives.

Image Source: Harpreet Singh. Anquique Camera. Royalty Free Use.

read the rest of the Wikipedia article

Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance on Amazon

Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance
Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance

The book, which accompanies an exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, features 80 color illustrations of a range of photography-art objects, including lockets, photo "jewelry" and even photo-furniture.

 

Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance Exhibit

This exhibition is presented in collaboration with the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, and is the ninth in the series "New Histories of Photography." It is made possible by the generous support of The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation.

The type post-mortum photography chronicled in Sleeping Beauty was very expensive and nearly always a great sacrifice on the part of the family.

If, as an example, you were a farmer in 1850 making a few dollars each month, one photograph could easily cost you several months pay. It is virtually impossible for us today to understand the pre-photographic mind. Until the invention of photography the average family had no way to hold a keepsake of their loved one.

This one image was so precious an object that they were worn as jewelry and in later years even sent to relatives as post cards.

Debra McFadden. Review of Sleeping Beauty.

Photo Source: Karen Barefoot. Picturing the Past. Royalty Free Use.

Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America on Amazon

Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America
Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America

Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America is now considered to be a collectible.

One of the most important aspects of "Sleeping Beauty" is Dr. Burns' historical chronology which describes each image, tells the story behind the image and gives the reader a real sense of the social and cultural influences of the time.

You may want to check your local library for a copy.

 

Death in America is a two-hour documentary investigating how Americans dealt with illness and death from colonial times to the present.

The program looks at changes in popular culture, outbreaks of disease, medical and technological advances as well as religious teachings and legislative changes.

The Burns Archive, which houses the collected images, is the single largest privately held collection of photographs in the world. With more than 500,000 images, the collection specializes in post-mortum and medical photography.

Deadly Intent: Crime & Punishment in the Amazon Spotlight

Deadly Intent: Crime and Punishment Photographs from the Burns Archive
Deadly Intent: Crime and Punishment Photographs from the Burns Archive

Deadly Intent: Crime & Punishment Photographs from the Burns Archive book looks at the history of photographing death and crime.

The book is divided into four sections: crime scenes, police action, punishment, and executions.

One Amazon reviewer cautions that there are plenty of pictures of dead bodies, including some dead mutilated bodies.

 

Death and Dying in Early Photography

The Death & Dying Collection spans the worlds cultures and consists of about 4,000 photographs (1840-1996).

It contains one of the largest archives of early images of death and dying and is particularly noteworthy for its daguerreotypes.

Numerous exhibitions and the 1990 "Best Photo Book of the Year", Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America was prepared from the collection.

The making of a postmortem photograph is, like embalming,

a preservation of the body

for the gaze of the observer.

Dan Meinwald

Memento Mori: Death and Photography in Ninetheenth Century America

Dan Meinwald's essay examining the relationship between death and photography in nineteenth century America.

The online essay includes original postmortem and funerary photographs.

Note: This feature contains graphic images of death that may not be appropriate for all viewers. Discretion is advised.

Memento Mori: Churches and Churches of England in the Amazon Spotlight

Memento Mori: Churches and Churches of England
Memento Mori: Churches and Churches of England

Simple stone gravestones, richly carved table tombs and glowing stained glass memorial windows all mark the irrevocable certainty of death and seem to proclaim 'Memento Mori' - 'Remember you are mortal'.

The quintessence of the English churchyard and its memorials has been beautifully captured by Simon Marsden who presents the results of his recent tour of the country in this new book.

 

Memento mori

Remember you will die.

Memorial Photography Available on Amazon

Emmeline Grangerford's Scrapbook - An American Studies Project

Emmeline Grangerford's Scrapbook is a study of the American Way of Death in the Victorian era. Includes an examination of views on death, spiritualism, the mourning process, obituaries, postmortem photography, memorial photography, posthumous mourning paintings, funerary practices, and epitaphs.

Life Before Death noch mal leben: Life Before Death

This exhibition features people whose lives are coming to an end. It explores the experiences, hopes and fears of the terminally ill. All of them agreed to be photographed shortly before and immediately after death.

Note: This exhibit contains images of people after they have died and may not be appropriate for all viewers. Discretion is advised.

The majority of the subjects portrayed spent their last days in hospices. All those who come to such places realize that their lives are drawing to a close.

Noch mal leben vor dem Tod in the Amazon Spotlight

Noch mal leben vor dem Tod
Noch mal leben vor dem Tod

A beautifully printed book including many more photographs from this series is available at the moment only with a German-language text.

 

Thanatos.net Image Galleries

thanatos.net

The Thantos Archive currently houses and conserves an extensive collection of vintage postmortem and mourning photographs, many of which date back to the mid-1800's.

Note that their community forum is open to all, but the Memento Mori, Death Masks, and Medical Images galleries are accessible by members only.

Small Deaths: Photographs in the Amazon Spotlight

Small Deaths: Photographs (Wittliff Gallery Series)
Small Deaths: Photographs (Wittliff Gallery Series)

Photographer-artist Kate Breakey has been photographing found animal remains since the mid-1990s capturing the small often unnoticed deaths of birds, plants and other small creatures.

The book includes 75 color images from Breakey's ongoing "Small Deaths" series. These birds, flowers, lizards, and insects vividly express her desire to preserve each lost creature.

 

Some people are not sure if they

want pictures of their baby.

I would encourage you

to have pictures taken

even if you don't want to.

You may want them

in the future and

wish you had taken them.

Christina Moyer

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Comments on Memorial Photography

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    • profile image

      Jake_2525 5 years ago

      Very neat stuff.

    • spellbindingsis profile image

      spellbindingsis 5 years ago

      I think it depends on the family if they choose to have pictures of their deceased loved ones. Many things must be taken in account like the death of the family member if it wasn't pretty a photo after the fact captures only sadness where someone who died peacefully in their sleep would be a reminder of them letting go because it was "time" I personally couldn't have a photo of any of my family members after they passed on but, if I was to have a child that was stillborn I'd defiantly consider it, really depends on circumstances and family mind sets. Most are freaked out by the thought of death as it is. I am not but, the thought of losing someone I adore....breaks me.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 5 years ago from Central Florida

      I've been researching Civil War childhood and along with that, finding many photos of deceased children. So sad that the infant and child mortality was so high in the 1850s.

    • profile image

      jimmyworldstar 6 years ago

      Wow, I never knew about this practice. These days it seems disrespectful and creepy in most situations. It's really sad that in the past they couldn't have pictures of their loved ones stored everywhere they go like we do today.

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 6 years ago

      I photographed my mother shortly after her death, when she was shrouded, on a cheap camera phone. It has not been the right time to really look deeply at them, yet

    • smithlights profile image

      smithlights 6 years ago

      The other thing that is very popular now with infants who are not going to live is professional photographers coming in and taking formals of the baby and the family. I even read about one family who knew their daughter wouldn't survive more than a few hours after she was born, so they did special shots before she was born. The celebrated the time she was alive, even though she wasn't "out" yet. So special, while so sad at the same time.

    • smithlights profile image

      smithlights 6 years ago

      Great lens. You took a tough topic and did it well and with grace. My dad's sister died at 3 in 1945, and the only photo we have of her is in her coffin. We have very few photos of my grandmother because at the time, when someone died, they burned all the photos. I'm glad they don't do that anymore! When my infant niece was alive (she was born with a brain tumor and lived 29 days), her folks didn't want to take pictures, but I took some anyway. Now they are so glad to have them! I am too.

    • chezchazz profile image

      Chazz 6 years ago from New York

      I wish I had taken some post-mortem photos on 2 occasions but my family would not hear of it. Blessed on the Squid Angels Epic Back To School Bus Trip Quest. Your lens will be featured on âWing-ing it on Squidoo,â our lensography of some of the best Squidoo has to offer, as soon as the quest has been completed.

    • KathyZinn profile image

      KathyZinn 6 years ago

      Very interesting, thanks!

    • profile image

      blackfin 6 years ago

      a lot of cool info, Thanks

      My Blog: Engagement Photography Ideas

    • profile image

      MaxL 6 years ago

      Interesting lens, I've never even though about something like that. I guess where I'm from it's not common practise.

    • nbrandt123 profile image

      nbrandt123 6 years ago

      I can very much relate on this. My dear sister passed away a month ago and we don't want to keep any photos of those times because we believe she's just always here beside us.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 6 years ago from Central Florida

      My sister recently lost her husband and I took photos at the funeral home. I wasn't sure if these would be comforting or uncomfortable for her, so haven't given them to her yet. It is possible to take photos from an angle to show the body, flowers and other displays without it looking too morbid. Close-ups of the face might be too much for people who are grieving, as frequently the deceased doesn't look much like themselves.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      When I was growing up, I guess I thought it was normal for everyone because picutes were commonly taken at funerals. Done with such kindness and sensitivity,,,,

    • profile image

      Rpgkeys 6 years ago

      Great blogpost did not thought it would be so cool when I read the link.

    • profile image

      buntyross 6 years ago

      Very informative lense on memorial photography , post mortem photography. It's a bit depressing to picture dead bodies but would be the last picture.Melbourne Photographers

    • victorianpassage profile image

      victorianpassage 6 years ago

      Thank you for your lens. It was very informative. A special thanks for including the stillborn loss. So many find that subject even more taboo - as we have come to find out because our 7 year old does not understand how people feel on the topic. Too bad they could not be more child-like in their openness.

    • profile image

      BadSoulPhotography 6 years ago

      Interesting

    • diabolus lm profile image

      diabolus lm 7 years ago

      Wow, the first page on this subject I have visited on Squidoo, and it's a good one! And thanks for mentioning my site Thanatos.net!

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Lanley 8 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      So sensitive! You're officially blessed.

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 8 years ago

      I read an article about a couple whose baby died in utero at 8 months. They had to wait a day for their daughter to be delivered and were in complete shock. The hospital staff dressed the baby and a photographer offered to take a picture, but they were puzzled and declined. That decision haunted them for years, as they had nothing to remember her by. Thanks for handling the topic with your usual sensitivity. Squid Angel Blessed.

    • anthropos lm profile image

      Lamar Ross 8 years ago from Florida

      I realize that some people do not like the idea of taking pictures of the body after death. I took some of my dad in the casket last year when he died (at 92 years of age) and am very glad I did.

    • rebeccahiatt profile image

      rebeccahiatt 9 years ago

      Very well done lens about a very delicate and little known about subject. 5*

    • Janet2221 profile image

      Janet2221 9 years ago

      Thank you for submitting this wonderfully written lens to the Everything Photography group.

    • ChristinasFavs profile image

      ChristinasFavs 9 years ago

      Wonderful lens! Thank you so much for including my lens. I am so glad I have pictures of Mia. 5 stars.