Postmortem Photography

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It's very hard for people in modern times to understand the concept of post-mortem photography, which was an accepted and even common thing in the 19th century. In the days before Polaroids, camcorders, and digital photos, families who wished to preserve the memory of their loved ones looked to photography. What began as simple photos of deceased loved ones slowly evolved into a design craft of its own, with staging, lighting, decoration, posing, and other production qualities that often resembled second funerals and memorials in and of themselves. The practice eventually faded in popularity (both in America and Europe) in the early part of the 20th century.

Parents with their deceased child



Postmortem photography was widespread in Europe and America during the nineteenth century. The practice of photographing people after death, which began very early in the history of the medium, was performed as a special service by portrait photographers. Like portraiture, it was at first accomplished almost exclusively by the daguerreotype process.

During the first few years of its existence, the daguerreotype--a small, highly detailed picture on polished silver--was an expensive luxury. As the number of photographers increased throughout the 1840s, the cost of daguerreotypes diminished. Other, less costly procedures were introduced in the 1850s, along with novel forms of portraiture like the ambrotype (on glass), the tintype (on thin, cheap metal), and the carte-de-visite (on paper). By the 1860s, photographic portraiture was affordable to virtually all members of society.


The making of a portrait photograph was a memorable occasion. The results had an importance for their subjects that would diminish in the twentieth century, after photography had ceased to be a novelty. A portrait photograph was an expression of identity and of individual worth. It was particularly valued in America, a nation undergoing a process of self-definition, and in which individualism was seen as a national trait. A postmortem photograph, which represented the loss of an individual, had a value beyond that of an ordinary portrait.


That value was reflected in its cost. As a specialty item, a postmortem photograph was more expensive than an ordinary portrait. In part, this had to do with the unusual requirements of its making, as the photographer had to come to the subject rather than the other way around. However, this by itself could not have justified the high price of a postmortem picture. Photographers would charge extraordinary fees for a product which was desired with extraordinary fervor by their customers. Whatever the reason for the high fees, the commissioning of a postmortem photograph often involved an economic sacrifice.



Postmortem photography has one precedent in a centuries-old tradition of mourning portraiture in painting. These pictures are not at all like the earlier images of the ars moriendi. They are individual portraits rather than generic characterizations, and they depict their subjects after death rather than before. The earliest examples, made in northern Europe in the sixteenth century, show a recently-deceased subject, usually a nun or a clergyman, lying or sitting up in bed. Commoners, especially children, began to be depicted in the seventeenth century.

American Photography

Many American postmortem photographs depict their subjects in a similar manner. It is possible that the motif was brought from Europe, or it may be that the creators of both kinds of picture followed a similar logic--since most people died in bed, it was a sensible place to depict them. The setting, moreover, would be consistent with the last memories of the survivors.

Some of the photographs differ from their painted predecessors by depicting their subjects as if they were asleep. The concept of death as sleep has am extremely long history. It appears in Homer and Virgil, in medieval Christian liturgy, and in common parlance even today, when reference is made to the "repose" of the dead. It had a sentimental appeal in the nineteenth century, as it corresponded to the urge to symbolically maintain the presence of the deceased person within the circle of the family. Someone who is seen as asleep may wake up, if only in the dreams or fantasies of the living. differences

Early postmortem photographs have more variety than later ones. The body, for instance, may be depicted outside of the coffin, whereas in later pictures this almost never happens. Before the days in which the undertaker directed the proceedings, the photographer was given relative freedom to place and pose the body. After those days, the photographer was in most cases merely documenting the work of the undertaker. The pictures, like the funerary proceedings, followed a routine formula.

Even the early examples have predictable variations. Subjects are depicted either closeup or full length, either in profile or full face. The camera may be above or below the subject, but it is much more frequently at the same level. The face is almost always emphasized. The result is a very direct confrontation with a dead person. In later postmortem photographs, this confrontation is mitigated by the presence of flowers, sometimes to such an extent that the body becomes difficult to locate.

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Post-mortem photography is still practiced in some areas of the world, such as Eastern Europe. Photographs, especially depicting persons who were considered to be very holy lying in their coffins are still circulated among faithful Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians.

A variation of the memorial portrait involves photographing the family with a shrine (usually including a living portrait) dedicated to the deceased.

More recently, post-mortem photography has been replaced by glittery memorial websites laden with animated gifs and embedded MIDI music, Facebook memorial pages, and tabloid pictures of dead celebrities whom the public has longed to feel connected to.

A photograph of a deceased Kurt Cobain ran alongside a Seattle Times article detailing his suicide in 1994


"The LAST LOOK" - Post-Mortem Photography in Europe -

"Mentalfloss Blog » Only the Creepiest Photos Ever Taken." Mentalfloss Magazine - Where Knowledge Junkies Get Their Fix -

Warner, Marina. Phantasmagoria - Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.