Family Portraits, Post-Mortem


Victorian era parents posing with their deceased daughter.

Most of us have sat for a family portrait at least once in our lives. They are often tedious and uncomfortable, especially if you have a sibling who is five and a half years younger throwing a screaming fit while strangers are trying to make her smile and expect you to keep your cool. With the invention of the Daguerrotype, the first commercially successful photography process, photography became a lot more feasible to the common family. Portraits, which were previously painstakingly painted by an artist, could now be taken in a few moments. So what’s the catch?

Well, portraits were still expensive, so many families could only afford portraits taken post-mortem. Yeah, that means dead.

The Victorian era had a high infant and child mortality rate, so it wasn’t uncommon for the family portrait to be taken as a way of remembrance of the deceased loved one. With them included. Coffins were rarely photographed and the deceased member was often positioned in a lifelike act, such as playing with toys or “lounging” in a chair. Props like flowers were also added to increase life in the photo.

The photographic process used was a Daguerrotype, which resulted physically in a direct positive made in the camera on a silver copper plate. The surface of a daguerreotype is like a mirror, with the image made directly on the silvered surface; it is very fragile and can be rubbed off with a finger, and the finished plate has to be angled so as to reflect some dark surface in order to view the image properly. Depending on the angle viewed and the color of the surface reflected into it, the image can change from a positive to a negative. The cases provided to house daguerreotypes have a cover lined with velvet or plush to provide a dark surface that reflects into the plate for viewing. A bit far before film, but you guys get the idea.

Dead babies in coffins really isn't my thing, but this is basically what people did to remember their children. Everyday photography like we are lucky to have didn't exist then.

Dead babies in coffins really isn’t my thing, but this is basically what people did to remember their children. Everyday photography like we are lucky to have didn’t exist then.

Since this process was fairly new, photographers tried to make the very best of each result. The physical result made it easy for photographers to add things to the photo after it was made. Often times the deceased’s eyeballs would be propped open in order to have their pupils painted on the Daguerrotype later. Sometimes the photographer would even go as far as to paint a rosy tint on the cheeks. Super creepy! As the years went on and this became a very common practice, photographers got lazy and didn’t bother to make anything to appear lifelike and instead just showed up, photographed the deceased in their coffin and went about their day. This popular practice died out when snapshot photography was introduced.

Victorian photographer at work.

Victorian photographer at work.

Today, a lot of very religious faiths still practice post-mortem photography but the subject is now considered taboo. So what

Deceased family with facial close-ups.

Deceased family with facial close-ups.

made me write about this? Well, I haven’t been on in a few days and I was thinking of what would capture both photographer and non-photographer’s attention. Then I remembered how a few years ago I went to an antique book shop in Vermont. They had more than books including shoeboxes of old photos. I commented on how the people in them looked dead and the owner replied “Well, they are.” Who buys them? I really don’t know. Maybe no one because there were so many. I’m guessing someone was cleaning out an attic, came across them and freaked out but couldn’t just throw them in the trash, so off to the antique store they went. Those were in film, which was especially creepy because by the time film came out it wasn’t as popular of a practice.

This wasn’t about film exactly, more so about its predecessor but it’s historic photography nonetheless so hopefully your curiosity was satisfied. I know we all like to read about the weird and creepy every so often.

Photographers: Would you photograph someone deceased? Why or why not?
Anyone: What would you do with port-mortem photos if you found them? 

Deceased woman laying on the couch. Appearing to be asleep.

Deceased woman laying on the couch. Appearing to be asleep.

22 thoughts on “Family Portraits, Post-Mortem

  1. This practice has always been fascinating to me—call it morbid curiosity! But wow, those photos. Super creepy. Especially the portrait of the family of three. The close-ups look like straight zombies.

    • I know! When I saw those photos in the antique shop they were super creepy. The creepiest part is how to the earlier ones were set up to make them look living; like the children playing with toys. DEAD. Ugh, so strange that it was such a widely accepted practice. The whole paint on eye thing really sent some shivers too O_O

  2. For some reason, maybe perverse in nature, I actually enjoyed looking at the photos. Maybe this explains why so many people during that time looked sad and lifeless. I don’t think taking photos of those dearly departed would be a regular practice but for some extraordinary situation I can understand the reasoning behind it. We recently had a relative pass away and his wife was hospitalized and unable to attend his service so we had some photos taken for her of him at the service. I feel in this instance it gave her closure because she couldn’t attend. Would I hang a post-mortem photo on my wall? No. I think the past era photos are treasures because once again they give another glimpse into a different time.

    • Indeed! I don’t see a problem with the practice of it, aside from the whole lifelike posing thing, but the public display like hanging them in the house for visitors to see is a bit too intimate for me. I think if they are done it should be a very personal matter. Its strange how a photo of a dead person can be so….engaging? A lot of people do still practice this, especially in the catholic faith.

  3. Sooo creepy yet fun at the same time. I thoroughly enjoyed this read. Man some of those photos make you go ewww, but then again there are creepier cultures. I suppose having no other alternative for preserving the memory created the social acceptance and common practice. Absolutelly loved this piece.

    • Thanks! And yes, I’ll try and find some more creepy photos done in film or other historic process 🙂 definitely intriguing.

      See if they were done in digital they would probably have been erased and deleted before they became historic. 😉

  4. I have several friends who display photographs of stillborn children…it’s the only picture they have/were able to get in the short time they had with the children. In most cases, the hospitals (three different ones) were kind enough to take the photos. I guess some people would think that morbid or strange, but you do what you gotta do to grieve. On the other hand, a friend of mine was killed in a car accident at the age of 18. It may be because it was my first taste of my own mortality, but I found it quite odd when the mother and siblings propped him up in his coffin and took ‘family portraits’ with big grins on their faces, all the while commenting about how “squishy” he was. Everyone grieves in their own way I suppose.

    To answer the quesiton you posed to us non-photographers, if I ever found photos of the deceased, I would try to figure out who they were. If they ended up being relatives, I would most likely preserve them, and store them in a decent place. If they were strangers, I would most likely dispose of them in some honorable way…maybe donate to the library…or give them to you! Oh, and probably have nightmares, LOL!

    Great article! I read your blog all the time, and this one was my favorite to date.

    • I was once asked to photograph a stillborn baby as if it was living. I never got to because I had already had a shoot scheduled that day and time just didn’t allow for it. I’m still not sure if I would have done it.

      As for the car accident family…that is really morbid. I don’t know how a mother could make a joke while taking a photo with her dead son. Not my cup of tea but whatever floats the boat.

      Glad you actually read my blog! 🙂

  5. Makes me think of that move The Others with Nicole Kidman, they mentioned deceased photography in that movie. Personally, it’s a bit creepy. Especially the ones where they are “sleeping”. I seriously would not have known that woman was dead if you had not said so.
    The dead children in caskets is pretty eerie as well. An interesting bit of photographic history though.

    • I thought of that movie! Come to think of it, I kinda want to watch it again. Not as good when you know the secret but interesting all the same 🙂

      Dead people photos freak me out but I can never look away.

  6. WOW A very interesting article. Made me remember a western I once saw where they had the deceased lined up in their coffins with photos being taken of them..I thought it was ridiculous… I’m glad photos of deceased were rarely taken in coffins….tho’ I notice all 3 infants in coffins…. gave me chills.. I know some family members (by marriage) who still think it okay to take pictures of relatives in coffins to remember them by….that’s why I cherish all my photos I prefer remembering everyone living….. I was amazed at the last photo….she looks so peaceful and actually looks like she’s asleep….. great article Kait….

    • Thanks! Still creeps me out but I think I desensitized myself to the phenomenon by constantly researching and looking up the photos. I’d like to see recent ones from cultures that still practice this, as morbid as that makes me sound!

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  8. I wouldn’t do it now, it seems too morbid – I don’t even like when news stories show pictures of people who’ve been killed or severely injured. But I can understand the psyche of it, especially if it was a sudden death, or if it was a child. It’s a way of giving someone one last moment of dignity, I guess. Now we generally just hold onto keepsakes.

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  10. Fascinating, but I wouldn’t fancy doing it. I suppose if I found some of my ancestors I’d add them to the pix I have of them, alive, but it’s not likely now. I love blogs like this which tell me something I don’t know.

  11. I always thought it strange and creepy until my daughter was stillborn and I held her in my arms. I have photos of her and one takes pride of place in my sitting room along with her living siblings. Some people find it very strange and uncomfortable and I can see why as it’s a dead baby but i look at her as my baby. That’s all I have.

    • I’m sorry to hear that. I think that’s beautiful. Ultimately it comes down to personal reasons and what you are comfortable with, it doesn’t matter what other people think.

    • Hi there, my sources are from my education in photography. I learned this back when I was a student studying the history of it. It’s a common thing to learn about this topic, as it’s both fascinating and odd. This is an informal blog post, not an academic paper so I typically do not include sourced information from stuff that I already know unless it is not written in my own words! There are a ton of learning sources on this if you just google “port-mortem” photography! Thanks for reading it 🙂 if you find anything cool that I did not include feel free to post.

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