During the Victorian era, what is known as post mortem photography – or photographing the recently deceased – was a normal part of American and European culture. These Victorian death photos were taken to assist with the grieving process. They also served to document what a deceased loved one looked like at a time when photography was not as commonplace. In other words, a death photo might be the only picture a family has of a baby or parent.
When Did Post Mortem Photography First Appear
Daguerreotype photography first became commercially available in 1839. The invention of the daguerreotype enabled families to pose bodies and snap memorabilia. In some cases, these were the only photographs that contained the entire family.
Why Photograph the Dead?
These post-mortem photos were meant to capture a “last look” at deceased family members and loved ones. Although the photos often look creepy and disturbing, they were taken to help families grieve and remember those who had passed away. In some ways, these photos were also a tribute to those deceased. Another important thing to consider is the high infant mortality rate of these earlier eras. It would not be uncommon for families to have babies or young children die from an illness. These post mortem photos often served as the only documentation those families ever had of the lives of these loved ones. However, it wasn’t just the young that were photographed; adults and elderly were also captured in many of these photographs.
How Photos were Taken
Post mortem death photos were taken in various ways. The most simple is of a body laying in a natural sleeping position, such as in a crib or on a bed. Sometimes the bodies were held up by family members or even propped in a chair. In some cases, the bodies were placed in coffins and photographed either upright or laying down. There were also various contraptions designed, using clamps and wires, that prop up the body in a standing position for photographs. Sometimes these photos were of a single subject; sometimes entire families of deceased people were placed together.
The thought of post mortem photography in todays world seems pretty creepy. But we live in a different world now where just about everyone has been photographed or filmed at some point in their life. A grieving family member can simply look at a Facebook page or photo album if they want to reminisce a loved one.