Postmortem Photography

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/.

12 Comments

Preceding the start of my father’s wake in 2008, I had to deliver something to the funeral home in FL. The funeral director proudly said, “You’re daddy’s all ready.” I then realized this would be the last time I was alone with my dad before the family gushed in. Suddenly,
I thought I should photograph him in his WW2 Army uniform, as he was laid-out according to his wishes. These photos are still on my old flip-phone but, I never told anyone about it.
It felt too embarrassing.

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    I was surprised when the funeral director asked if I was going to photograph my Dad (this was in 1996). I did and am ever grateful to the director for suggesting it. Altho I have many photos of my Dad, this completes them. When my Mother died a year later I took several photos of her. Not ghoulish, just a nice remembrance for me.

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I have a few family photographs taken circa 1900 in Manhattan NYC that appear to be taken around a parent’s death with Victorian furnishings, surely not what my poor rellies could afford. Were such photographs taken in an actual funeral parlor?

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I have a few of these but the one that really turns the family these days is of a woman who died in childbirth sitting up and holding the living baby! When they realized what the photo was they gave it to me as no one wanted it in their house. Can’t imagine why not!!!

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Very early still photography required shutter speeds of minutes! So when they took photographs of living relatives, they had to be still just like a corpse in order for the photograph to not have a blurry image. So it seemed almost natural from a scientific sense to take a photo with a deceased relative back then, because they were not going to move anyway!

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When my mother died in 1983 I really wanted pictures of her as she looked so peaceful and pretty. I never asked anyone to take any. Sometime later my sister and I were talking and I mentioned it. She said she wished we had taken photos too. It would have been something just for us if we had. Now with cell phones it is so easy.

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Very interesting. I inherited a number of family photos and among them was a young man obviously not alive. After some searching I found he had died young as the result of a farm accident and was a distant cousin!

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I have pictures of both my mother and my father after they passed. My father had an open casket funeral, complete with his VMI jacket on, and then was subsequently cremated (the casket was a rental, which was still allowed back then). My mother was cremated before her service, so was never embalmed, but I have a picture of her anyway. I was able to do it only because I was there less then 24 hours after she passed (I live 700 or so miles away).

I have never posted those pictures anywhere, but will always have them if I want to see them.

I also have a scan of a picture of my great-grandmother with her deceased daughter on her lap, much like the one shown above.

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Off subject: I have a photograph of my grandfather’s sister who was disabled. When she died aged seven in 1903 she was described as a “paralytic idiot”. The photograph was taken with her older sister by her uncle the Whitby, Yorkshire, photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe. Once I realised what I was looking at I burst into tears. It was so moving. I’ve never seen another photograph of an obviously disabled child from that era. How rare would it be?

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My mother-in-law, who lived in Maine when her husband died in 1955, took pictures of him in his casket to send to the relatives in Canada who could not attend the funeral. I thought it strange when I first viewed the picture, but not anymore.

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While I was in high school I worked as an aide to a commercial photographer. One of our assignments was to photograph the corpse of a man; he was in his coffin but propped up against the wall in the entrance to the home so guests could greet him on the way in to what I assumed was a wake. This was in South Milwaukee circa 1944.

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