The Unpleasant Duty: An Introduction to Postmortem Photography

Order member Kelly Christian provides us with an introduction to postmortem photography that includes the often overlooked perspective of the photographer who had the “unpleasant duty to take the picture of a corpse.”

“Place the body on a lounge or sofa, have the friends dress the head and shoulders as near as in life as possible, then politely request them to leave the room to you and aids, that you may not feel the embarrassment incumbent should they witness some little mishap liable to befall the occasion.[1]” Since the inception of photography in the first half of the 19th century, photographing the dead has been an accepted memorial practice. Although it is often cast aside or scoffed at as some kind of bizarre and morbid happening, postmortem photographs represent a particular part of mourning in this era. These beautiful and moving images depict the last moment that a family would be able to grieve with their deceased loved one present. Beyond this, postmortem photographs speak to the mourning and funeral norms of the times.

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The memorial, or postmortem photograph, has been around nearly as long as photography itself. The first photograph of a deceased person was a daguerreotype. This antiquated photographic process is understood as one of the first types of photography, which renders a ghostly image on a metallic, silvery surface. Developed in 1839, the first postmortem photograph was taken in 1841.[2] This timeline shows that photography was actually filling a kind of memorial void that other forms, such as paintings, could not. Most importantly, taking a photograph of your dead loved one was simply faster than other mediums, and would eventually become more affordable as well. It was also possible that these photographs were the only images captured of this person, as photography was still a recent invention that was not always affordable or available. This final image may also be the only documentation of this person in their entire life.

11042rThe practice of capturing a final “likeness” had even become part of the photographer’s professional repertoire. In an 1869 edition of the Philadelphia Photographer, a trade journal offering a vast catalog of information and contacts, a photographer describes this experience. J.M. Houghton begins, “The other day I was called upon to make a negative of a corpse,” who then goes on to discuss the moving of the body closer to a window, in order to make use of natural light: “I selected a room where the sunlight could be admitted, and placed the subject near the window, and a white reflecting screen on the shade side of the face.”[3] This standard practice, photographing the dead, was even worth discussing amongst professionals. Since the body would be moved by the photographer and was obviously less mobile, there were certain tips and tricks that made image-making much more efficient.

Charlie E. Orr, a photographer from Sandwich, Illinois, wrote into the Philadelphia Photographer in January of 1873, and wrote a brief article to “afford assistance to some photographer of less experience, to whom it might befall the unpleasant duty to take the picture of a corpse.”[4] Orr goes on to explain:

Place you camera in front of the body at the foot of the lounge, get your plate ready, and then comes the most important part of the operation (opening the eyes); this you can effect handily by using the handle of a teaspoon; put the lower lids down, they will stay; but the upper lids must be pushed far enough up, so that they will stay open to about the natural width, turn the eyeball round to its proper place, and you have the face nearly as natural as life. Proper retouching should remove the blank expression and stare of the eyes.

Photographing the dead proved to have some interesting challenging, but unlike the living, the deceased sitter could not move. With long exposure times, the dead were the ideal photographic subject.

The composition and appearance of postmortem photographs changed throughout the 19th century. For example, postmortem photographs taken prior to the 1860s depict death as if it had just happened; many images from this era share similar poses and details. Most of these photographs concentrate on just the face or head, laid out on furniture in the home or placed on a bed or in a child’s buggy.[1] With many photographs showing the body laid out, sometimes on a bed, the viewer is invited to understand the death as a visual representation of the “last sleep.[2]” These photographs were not intended to dupe the viewer into assuming the deceased was still alive but rather they would be posed in such a way that to recall or depict the subject as if they were just asleep, thus softening the sad reality that they had died. In this way, the postmortem photograph represents the body at peace.

IMG118194Around the turn of the mid 19th century, postmortem photographs also demonstrate shifting cultural ideas. At this point, many postmortem photographs depicted children. Throughout the Industrial Revolution, children were valued laborers. It was not until 1836 that Massachusetts became the first state to sign child labor legislation into law; it required that children under the age of fifteen attend school for at least three months out of the year[3]. This law also speaks to the fairly recent inception of systematized formal education for children. With newly enacted child labor laws in conjunction with the increasing value placed on formal education, children began to occupy a different role within the family. They became understood not only as wage earners, but as young, evolving humans who should be nurtured and supported.[4]

IMG5282With this changing role, postmortem photographs of children also began to change. For example, this photograph from 1860 depicts a recently deceased young girl, who is sitting on the lap of her mourning mother.[5] The mother’s face is straight and unwavering, looking directly at the camera. She holds her daughters hand for the last time, as her small body is cradled by her mothers. Her mother is clearly in mourning. Many photographs of this decade began to include the presence of loved ones, either around the body of the recently deceased, or embracing or touching them in some way.

At this time, many photographs of the dead became more elaborate or indicative of what that person had been like in life. Some children would be photographed with a favorite toy or blanket, depicting an image that allows the viewer to imagine what they had been like in life.[6] Other photographs would show a body outstretched in their final resting place, which may be an elaborate coffin or even a casket.

3a14343rBy the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, funerary patterns began to shift. Embalming was first introduced on a national level and seen widely after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865. He laid in state for three days and was viewed by over 25,000 mourners before being sent to his home of Springfield, Illinois: his body traveled over 1,700 miles from Washington D.C. to his hometown[1], where he was to be buried, making many stops along the way.[2] Embalming required professional intervention in the funeral, which led to the inception of the funeral director.

kodak_ad_345x500Photography was also becoming a daily part of American life. Photographic technology became easier to use, and the supplies became more accessible. Companies like Kodak began to advertise heavily, creating campaigns that would heavily influence how photographs were taken up in culture.[3] Photos were now taken at holidays and on vacation, as well in day to day activities. When photos were able to depict the joys of life, there was less emphasis on photographing the dead. There was simply other ways to show someones life other than their last moments.

Postmortem photographs became less popular in the first quarter of the 20th century. Infant mortality dropped due to a variety of important medical developments, and childhood illnesses began to be better managed. Photography captured the living, and less of the dead. Shifting away from Victorian ideals surrounding death, dying became medicalized and professionalized.

Although postmortem photography did not simply stop, it lost the popularity it once had many years prior. Photographing the dead still happens today, but not to the extent that it once had. These kinds of photographs end up on ebay and in thrift stores, often separated from the families that they once belonged to. For many that do photograph at funerals, digital photos end up on computers or phones, ready to be deleted when the longing to look has passed. What has not changed, however, is our desire to look at photos of those we loved, whether they are dead or alive.

[1] IMAGE: http://www.loc.gov/item/2009633711/

[2] Drew Gilpin Faust. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. (New York: Random House, 2008), 157.

[3] IMAGE: https://tpwd.texas.gov/spdest/findadest/historic_sites/ccc/new_deal_texas_html/media/images/2/kodak_ad_345x500.jpg

[1] Jay Ruby. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. (Boston: MIT Press, 1995), 19.

[2] IMAGE: http://licensing.eastmanhouse.org/GEH/C.aspx?VP3=ViewBox_VPage&VBID=2744WNB9Z071&IT=ZoomImage01_VForm&IID=2F3XC5UQJT1&PN=33&CT=Search

[3] Child Labor Public Education Project. “Child Labor in U.S. History.” University of Iowa Labor Center and Center for Human Rights. http://www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/laborctr/child_labor/

[4] IMAGE: http://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.34974/

[5] IMAGE: http://www.loc.gov/resource/ppmsca.11042/

[6] IMAGE: http://licensing.eastmanhouse.org/GEH/C.aspx?VP3=ViewBox_VPage&VBID=2744WNB9ZJX2&IT=ZoomImage01_VForm&IID=2F3XC58Z2RZA&PN=1&CT=Search

 

[1] Philadelphia Photographer. 1875 volume 11. Page 27.

[2] John Hannavy ed. Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography. (New York: Routledge, 2008), s.v. “postmortem photography.”

[3] Philadelphia Photographer. 1869 volume 6. Page 241.

[4] Philadelphia Photographer. 1873 volume 10. Page 200.

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  • Micah 李 文 Jung

    Personally I would love photographs at my funeral just not at my dead body I wont look my best LOL I would proably look like a vampire! LOL

  • Erin Mawn

    Hi Caitlin, I’ve been reading your blog for a while now, and I loved your book, too. I am so glad you wrote about post-mortem photography because it’s been an interest of mine for years, ever since I came across one in an antique store. I have seen many listings on Ebay, and descriptions of examples online, that claim a photo is post-mortem because “you can see the stand holding the person in place”. However, I always understood that due to the long exposure times of early cameras, that certain mechanisms were used on living subjects to help them hold still so the photo would not end up blurry. Can you shed some light on this for me?

    • femme_du_chats

      I’m not Caitlin, nor do I deign to speak for her, and I apologize for overstepping any bounds if that is the case — but I’ve found that most of what is listed as “post-mortem” on eBay (or Pinterest or Tumblr or site xyz) is not true PM photography, and is listed or re-pinned as such either through ignorance or blatant falsehood. Several “dead baby” photos found on these sites
      distinctly show blurred hands, feet, clothing, etc., of the supposedly
      dead subject, or of children holding hands and standing on their own two feet. My favorite is a series of photographs from around 1911 of this young girl: http://www.shorpy.com/node/4619. The one that caught my eye originally was her standing beside the tricycle with her dog posed on the seat and handlebars. Both were noted to be “post-mortem”.

      Many of so-called post-mortem photos are either illustrations to
      go along with a magazine story, or for a set of novelty cards
      (‘”naughty” or otherwise), etc.; the stands were not used to hold up corpses, but to steady the breathing, shifting, living subjects to avoid that motion blur. Likewise, most of what is termed “Victorian” era post-mortem (photos, clothing, jewelry) falls outside of the actual reign of Queen Victoria (on either side), and most people simply don’t know any better.

      TL; DR: Yes, the stands were to keep the living subjects from moving around during exposure time; no, they would not be able to hold up the dead weight of a corpse.

      • Erin Mawn

        Thank you so much for your comment, and the information! Many years ago in Gettysburg, some friends and I posed for a photographer who used the real glass plate method (as a souvenir of our trip) and he used metal stands to help steady our heads so we wouldn’t unknowingly move and blur the result. Therefore, I suspected these “stands in view” were not indicative of post-mortem photography. I appreciate your taking the time to clarify this.

  • Larry Skeens

    Awesome article. Very detailed and valid information. Thank you for taking the time and research to provide this quality read.

  • Leah

    When I read this essay from a journalist who miscarried while in Mongolia, one of the most poignant details was about her fervent need to photograph her son. The whole piece is worth a read, but that detail really stuck with me.

    “I could not keep the story of what had happened in Mongolia inside my mouth. I went to buy clothes that would fit my big body but that didn’t have bands of stretchy maternity elastic to accommodate a baby who wasn’t there. I heard myself tell a horrified saleswoman, “I don’t know what size I am, because I just had a baby. He died, but the good news is, now I’m fat.” Well-meaning women would tell me, “I had a miscarriage, too,” and I would reply, with unnerving intensity, “He was alive.” I had given birth, however briefly, to another human being, and it seemed crucial that people understand this. Often, after I told them, I tried to get them to look at the picture of the baby on my phone.”

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/11/18/thanksgiving-in-mongolia

  • Amanda Ross-White

    You might also find this interesting. I wrote this post on a website for mothers who have lost children (especially stillbirth and early neonatal death). Many of these women who share their postmortem photographs receive hateful comments and not just anonymously on the Internet, but often by family and friends right to their faces. http://stillstandingmag.com/2013/12/memento-mori/

  • James Martin

    I have taken pictures of my parents and grand parents as well as the Aunt who helped raise me and my siblings in the funeral parlor. Have them all in a special remembrance book

    • Lee Mun Lim

      you mean of them in the coffin? Oh why? why not a picture of the casket or coffin? who is going to own that when you go?

  • DSReed

    I had the unfortunate experience to learn of my families’ predilection with postmortem photography by accident. Unbeknownst to me, my maternal grandfather had died. I had been traveling for work (construction) with short stays in numerous areas of the U.S. and Canada and not easily reached. When I arrived home I found a letter from one of my younger sisters. I opened it and out plopped photos (taken from various angles) of my grandfather in his coffin. Not exactly the way I wanted to learn of his death nor of the family “tradition.” It seems that this has been going on for a long time perhaps since the birth of photography. Obviously, not all of us had been informed. I don’t know what happens to the pictures. They may be in an album somewhere. I hope I don’t “accidentally” run across it someday but at least I’ll be prepared this time.

    • Lee Mun Lim

      well that is a story to tell isnt it! like Aunt in National Lampoons Vacation when they left the aunt on the door step! WHy didnt they just call or even wait for contact from you

  • Indeed an unpleasant duty!
    http://www.edgephotography.com.au/

  • I don’t know but I am finding this postmortem photography kind of creepy! Isn’t it an unpleasant feeling of taking shots in such situation! Truly specking I didn’t have any idea before about such categorization of Photography as well.

    • wytzox1

      Back then people didn’t have personal cameras to take snapshots of those children so those post-mortem photos of the deceased child may’ve been the only keepsake/memory of the child. But today they do indeed seem creepy. ♣

  • wytzox1

    Back in the 19th century dead gunslingers (shot or hanged) were often sat up and posed, often with their guns, before burial on “boot hill.” ♣

  • Na powaznie

    OMG

  • Cynthia

    When my maternal grandmother passed in 1969, I was 17. I knew my grandparents very well: they had moved in with us when I was 5. Grandma’s death was my introduction to the tradition of the Wake. After she was embalmed, her body was brought home to be with us for three days. I think I was in shock, not prepared for Grandma’s presence. She was ill, but died very suddenly one morning. Coming home from school that week was strange. Walk into the house, set down my books, and there she was, open casket and candles in the living room. My uncle took photos of her, I think as a comfort measure. Grandma left us so suddenly there was not enough time to notify all the adult children she had been admitted to the hospital. I don’t know where those photos are now. My uncle has been gone for almost 6 years.