It sounds ghoulish but many of our ancestors accepted the idea as normal: photographing the corpses of family members shortly after their death. During the Victorian era, such photographs were meant to be happy reminders of the life of the deceased person for their families. Death, and personally dealing with death, was prevalent throughout the entire world as epidemics would come quickly and kill quickly. Postmortem photographs not only helped in the grieving process, but often represented the only visual remembrance of the deceased and were among a family’s most precious possessions. These were often called “Memento Mori Photography.” Memento mori is Latin for “remember that you have to die.”
Mother and deceased child
Most Memento Mori photographs were taken within twenty-four hours after death, frequently with living family members posing along with the deceased person. Mothers frequently were photographed while holding a deceased child, perhaps also holding a favored toy of the child. In some cases, photographers would later hand-paint open eyes on the photograph’s closed eyelids of the deceased in order to make him or her look awake and alive.
Katie Anna Nagel, aged 17 years, 5 months, and 9 days
Photography was unusual in the late 1800s and family portraits of all family members often were a one-in-a-lifetime event. When a family member died abruptly before such a family photograph had been taken, a photographer often would be called in in a hurry to take a picture of all the family members, including the deceased. The picture would then be displayed on a living room wall or stored in family photo albums for all to view at a later date.
Deceased child with “open eyelids” painted onto the photograph
If you have inherited an old family photo album, look closely at the photographs inside. You may find a few photos of deceased relatives.
Man holding his deceased wife
The Burns Archive has a large collection of Memento Mori Photography that can be viewed online at: http://www.burnsarchive.com/Explore/Historical/Memorial. You can also find many more old postmortem photographs on Pinterest at: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/389209592773603160/.