ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Why Take Pictures of the Dead? Peculiar Post-Mortem Photography

Updated on July 19, 2018
Sparrowlet profile image

Katharine is a history buff and loves to write about little-known historical events and topics.

The Victorian Age

(vintage train postcard/public domain)
(vintage train postcard/public domain) | Source

The Victorian era was unique in many ways. In England it was the reign of Queen Victoria, for whom the era is named. In the United States, it saw the horrific events of the Civil War. Many new and wondrous things were being invented, marketed, and changing everyday life in ways never before imagined, and at a rapid pace. A parade of seemingly magical inventions from the steam locomotive to the safety pin were radically transforming a way of life that had been largely unchanged for centuries.

While many of the day's inventions were beyond the reach of the poorest in society, more and more modern conveniences were infiltrating even the homes of those on the lowest rungs of the ladder. One of these was the new art of photography. Though a session with a photographer would have been well beyond the means of common folk when it was first invented, by the 1860's the development process had evolved to make photographs affordable for almost everyone.

A Strange Custom

(parents holding deceased daughter)
(parents holding deceased daughter) | Source

Why did people take photos of their dead loved ones? It seems macabre and even disrespectful of the dead to us today, but attitudes and beliefs about death were quite different in the Victorian age. For one thing, death was far more frequent an event in those days, particularly among the very young. Infant mortality was very high, and young people also died from virulent contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, typhoid and polio. In addition, there were few hospitals in common use at that time, particularly not for the average person.

Almost everyone died at home in their own bed. The science of embalming and the emergence of funeral services was still several decades away. Families washed the bodies of their own dead and dressed them for burial at home. The pervasiveness and up-close nature of death during Victorian times meant that people were less repulsed by it than many today seem to be. It was a common reality of life then, and looked upon with much more of a resigned acceptance, though grief was, of course, just as keenly felt.

(post-mortem of child in coffin)
(post-mortem of child in coffin) | Source

Mourning Photographs

With this outlook on the passing of a loved one, it seemed perfectly natural to the Victorian mind to photograph the deceased before burial, after which they would never see that face again. For most, it would be the first and only photograph ever taken of them, and many families jumped at the chance to create this cherished memento of their family member.

Why didn't they take photos while the loved one was alive? Well, prior to individuals owning their own cameras, only a photographer could take a photo for you. This involved making an appointment and getting family members together for the event. As people have done throughout the ages, they procrastinated. Photographs were simply put off a lot of times with the thought that "someday" they'd get everyone together to have one done. When faced with the death of a child, for example, the parents might grasp at the prospect of preserving their child in a portrait; a portrait that would never be taken at their wedding or with children of their own.

While many of these photographs were taken of the deceased on their death bed in a position of repose, or in the coffin itself, families often wished to be photographed along with their beloved deceased. It is this practice that seems so strikingly odd to us today. But consider that this was likely the only photograph the family would have of their family member, and it can be more easily understood that they often wanted that one photograph to reflect their relationship to the deceased. These photographs were also known as mourning photos, and it can be imagined that the pictures were part of the mourning process for the surviving family.

(mother with dead child)
(mother with dead child) | Source

Grief Therapy

It is not difficult to imagine the desire of a mother to be photographed, lovingly cradling her dead infant. The grief of this young mother is clearly seen as she sits for a portrait with her deceased baby. As a means of working through intense grief, the photos also served an important function. From there, it might be understandable to want a dead child to be included in a family photo with the other children, since the family would never again be "whole". These are some of the thoughts behind family oriented post-mortem portraits. Many of these portraits left the deceased with eyes closed as in death, but some attempted to make the child appear to be living.

The Heartbreak of Losing a Child is Evident in These Photos

Posing the Dead

Aside from the family centered photographs, there were other types of poses that were frequently chosen, such as a child surrounded by her toys, or the deceased standing or sitting as if alive. In many of these, rather than presenting the deceased as if they are in the slumber of death, they attempted to make them appear as though still alive, even using pink tincture to colorize the sallow cheeks of the dead subject. These photographs are perhaps the most disturbing to us today, but in the 1800's they were nothing out of the ordinary, but reflected the love for the individual who had been lost and the heartbreaking wish that they might live on forever in their portrait.

Sadly, and most disturbingly of all, there were times when the photographer couldn't make an appointment close enough to the death for the subject to still look life-like. Why the family still went through with the portrait is perhaps questionable, because the resulting photographs are macabre indeed and hardly seem as though they would make a fond memento for loved ones to cherish!

The child below was posed and appears to be quite alive. Often they would tie the child around the torso under the clothing to the chair or other furnishing to hold them erect.

Deceased Child Who Appears Alive
Deceased Child Who Appears Alive | Source

What Are Your Thoughts on Post-Mortem Photography?

What do you think of these mourning photographs?

See results

The End of Mourning Photos

By the start of the 20th century, the practice of taking post-mortem portraits was fading. This was due to the burgeoning undertaking and funeral home business which whisked the deceased from the home soon after death, and also to the fact that people were beginning to own their own cameras and so it was less and less likely that no living photograph of the deceased had been taken.

Yes, post-mortem photography was a strange and macabre aspect of Victorian life. But if thought of in terms of an expression of love and a way to manage grief at a time when grief over a loved one's death was so very common, it can be understood and even appreciated. For its time it served a purpose, and we have today the haunting photographic evidence of loss and remembrance in this very unique and poignant practice.

(sisters: one living, one dead)
(sisters: one living, one dead) | Source

© 2016 Katharine L Sparrow

Comments Appreciated!

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Sparrowlet profile imageAUTHOR

      Katharine L Sparrow 

      4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      It was, Deb, until the latter half of the 19th century, when it became much cheaper due to innovations in photo development. All, except for the very poor, could afford to have a photographer come for a post-mortem portrait. Fascinating, isn't it!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I had no idea that this practice even existed, so I thank you in enriching my knowledge. When one considers that fact that photography was a rich man's pleasure, I can see why this came about.

    • Sparrowlet profile imageAUTHOR

      Katharine L Sparrow 

      4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Hi Anjili, thanks for stopping by! Yes, in England and in America! Strange practice, for sure, but it was surprisingly common!

    • Anjili profile image


      4 years ago from planet earth, a humanoid

      That was a rather strange practice. Familiarity with death makes it less creepy to the living. I didn't know such a practice was norm in England during old times.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)