Sleeping Beauties: The Victorians and Post-Mortem Photography

by JoHarrington

Less divorced from death than we are today, the Victorians took keepsakes that modern sensibilities would find too shocking to contemplate.

At the dawn of photography, there were no taboos about what was appropriate to commit to film.

Victorian society was notably more in touch with the circle of life and death than we are today. Our corpses are quietly taken away by hospital staff; encased in their coffins and hidden from view by undertakers.

The Victorian families laid out their own dead, in their own homes, performing all of those necessary functions themselves. The mementos they prepared would be taboo today.

Please note that there are images in this article, which some readers may find upsetting. They are all sensitively rendered (no gore), but they are not for the faint-hearted, nor those squeamish about death.

Image: Early Victorian post-mortem photograph
Image: Early Victorian post-mortem photograph

Examine closely the image above. 

Note the neat attire, the carefully brushed and arranged hair. See how the younger woman leans languidly against her father; and the uncertainty of her mother.

None of them quite know where to look.  Photography was such a new concept then and people had to sit very still for a long time. To blink was to risk ruining the shot.

(In 1839, it could take up to half an hour to capture a daguerrerotype image.  By 1842, this had been refined down to a minute. Photographer's studios included hidden head-rests and body clamps to help the subjects remain in position.)

They pose, they wait. Grim-faced, as all subjects in early Victorian photographs were wont to be, whatever their natural instinct. It hurt their faces too much to smile for so long.

But this family may be forgiven their sullen, slightly shell-shocked expressions.  Despite their rosy cheeks - added in later by the photographer's tinting brush - they would have been quite pale in actuality.

The woman in the center is dead.  Her parents propped up her corpse, doing their best to make her appear quite alive.  Thus they created their memento mori; a keepsake of their dearly beloved.

Not Lost But Gone - Victorian Post-Mortem Photography

This is a sensitive arrangement of memento mori images by Ghostwatching.

As soon as the daguerreotype was invented in 1839, families began to take photographs of their dead.  It quickly became viewed as a respectful part of the funeral ritual; and a powerful aid to mourning.

Until the latter part of the 19th century, the most common practice was to make the deceased appear as in life. They would be propped up by a hidden stand, or arranged on a chair.  Children were usually laid out on a bed, as if they were merely asleep.

In order to aid this illusion, living family members and/or pets would pose with them. They would try desperately to keep the grief from their features.  It would not do to give the game away.

However, as the decades went on, it was seen as more proper to give hints to the true status of the dead.  Flowers covered beds, in elaborate tableaux, that could not be mistaken for a night's repose.

By the end of the 19th century, coffins were brought into view; or the deceased were pictured as they were, with no attempt made to arrange them in life-like positions.

After that, the practice slipped out of commonplace in Western society.  It still did go on, but more rarely, until the fashion went away completely. Then it became taboo.

Victorian Mourning Rings

Fellow Wizzley author Digby Adams discusses another mode of memento mori dating from this period.
A memorial ring or mourning ring with a loved one's hair gracefully woven into the design was the perfect way for a Victorian to remember their spouse or child.

Your Views on Post-Mortem Photography

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It should be noted that photography was very much in its infancy.

In these days of digital cameras and telephones snapping away at everything that moves, it's sometimes easy to forget how it was in the past. The post-mortem picture may have been the only image ever taken of its subject.

This was particularly true for babies and children. Distraught parents realized that this was their last chance to have an image of their beloved off-spring.

As photography progressed, it also became possible to order extra prints off the negatives. Family and friends living far away could be mailed a copy of the memento mori picture. They would see for the first (and last) time what the little one looked like.

In an age of high infant mortality, that was a very precious keepsake to possess.

Victorian Post-Mortem Photography Books

Buy these gallery books and studies to discover more about the macabre photography of the 19th century.
Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America

Memorial Photography a lost tradition in America due to its morbid nature and the stigma currently lingering within our present society.

View on Amazon

Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement in Memorial Photography American and European Traditions

View on Amazon

Sleeping Beauty III: Memorial Photography: The Children

Sleeping Beauty III Memorial Photography: The Children enhances the history of postmortem photography and is intended as a reference for bereavement organizations, photographers...

View on Amazon

Photography and Death (Reaktion Books - Exposures)

The idea of photographing the dead is as old as photography itself. For the most part, early death photographs were commissioned or taken by relatives of the deceased and preser...

View on Amazon

Postmortem Collectibles

Intended to be intriguing but not morbid, this book takes readers on an amazing journey through past, present, and evolving postmortem practices. The first of its kind, it deals...

View on Amazon

Bad Influence October 2006: Photography: A Dead Issue

This issue of Bad Influence includes articles about cemetery photography, Victorian post-mortem photography, mourning dress in Victorian photography, The Woodmen's Circle Home, ...

View on Amazon

Updated: 01/14/2013, JoHarrington
 
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Lisa on 01/31/2016

It makes perfect sense, especially if there would never be another photo. Consider how we now take pictures of infants who are stillborn or pass soon after birth.... An image of a lost loved one is a powerful grieving tool... And a remembrance. If we had no other options, no other photos, I'm sure we would do the same thing today.....

JoHarrington on 04/15/2013

Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it. This is why I love history so much. There are so many weird and wonderful stories.

lilysnape on 04/14/2013

Good information, I had never heard of this before

JoHarrington on 03/25/2013

It's an unusual thing to do nowadays, but I don't think it's wrong. In some ways, it can be closure or a momento. It may also be a psychological thing. You can distance yourself from the reality by looking at it through a lens. Then you can learn to accept it in your own time, using the photograph to reaffirm that this incomprehensible thing (a death in the family) actually did happen.

georgettejohn on 03/25/2013

After all of the family had left, my uncle returned and photographed my grandfather in the funeral home. (I don't think the rest of the family was really aware of what was going on but being a curious child with big ears...I knew) At 10, I didn't think this was odd, nor do I now. I can see how back then, it may have been a part of "closure" or the grieving process. If the loved one looked "peaceful" the photo may have brought comfort especially if the person had suffered during the end stages of life. I enjoyed your article...very interesting.

JoHarrington on 09/29/2012

That is such a beautiful comment and very thought-provoking. I love that you practice post-mortem photography today too. Perhaps if more of us did, we wouldn't be so frightened by an inevitable end to life.

MEAlways on 09/29/2012

These images capture something that can not be explained and are often the only image of the person to have ever existed. It is nice to be remembered in my opinion, even in death for we are here and gone within' the blink of an eye, why not immortalize a soul through imagery. At best we as mere humans are only here for less than 100 years, however the cycle of life continues and all is forgotten In my family post mortem photo's were practiced even today... the only person we did not photo at death was my step father as he did not look like the person we knew when he died.

JoHarrington on 09/16/2012

Hi Ember! It sounds to me like your parents had a really healthy approach to explaining death and encouraging questions.

I don't think you were alone in the type of questions either. I cringe now recalling some of the questions that my brother and I asked my Nan, the winter after my Grandad had died. Like 'is he cold in the ground?' and 'is he all bones now?' I remember my mortified mother telling us off for it, but can't picture my Nan's reaction. I think she was very dignified about it, else I really would have it lodged in my memory.

Taboo or unfashionable? You make some great points here. i know that forensics investigators and mortuary personal often still have to photograph corpses. They have a purpose and no qualms.

But would you feel confident requesting a photograph like the Victorian ones, if a member of your family died? How would you feel if a relative turned up to the death-bed with a camera? I think that would be incredibly awkward, hence my feeling that it's more taboo than unfashionable there.

Or perhaps the unfashionable nature means that we don't automatically know the etiquette, hence we shy away. You've given me plenty to think about here!

Ember on 09/16/2012

OH. And, I wrote you a comment last night but I guess I didn't post it properly, and I lost it. :C But I was wondering if it isn't so much a taboo as it just no longer serves its purpose, so it fell out of fashion. I think it's not as taboo as it really might seem at first, because when you consider the people in society today who are in the same place as many of these families might have been, I think a lot of times they do chose to take pictures. Back then, with the accessibility of photography being so low, that picture may be the only ones they have of their lost loved one, so it is a really good memento. If you think about it, most commonly the only families today that didn't have a chance to get a photograph of a family member or loved one, it is probably with a baby that was born really ill, and died soon after birth. And it isn't uncommon for the families of that child to take a picture with him or her, if they hadn't gotten one yet. And, I think, like if my sister or father passed away and I literally had no other photo of either, I know I would want a picture...And as perhaps as off-putting as the idea may come across at first, I think considering that, no one would think of me as incredibly creepy or look down on me. But because most families do have pictures, there isn't a need for such a practice. I dunno, it was a thought.

Sorry for multiple long comments :D

Ember on 09/16/2012

This was a really captivating article. I was reading it last night with Kenna, and she was really inspired by it and took off to write. I think it is beautiful and sad.

I agree that death doesn't get the respect it deserves. My mom was always really blunt with me about things I'd have to face in life, and death was one of them. It was a cat that died that sparked the conversation, and we buried it, and my mom explained death, how unexpected it can be, how everyone is going to die including her, my brothers, me, but how it isn't something I should spend my time worrying over. She let me ask whatever questions I wanted, and I came to understand and be quite comfortable with the fact that death is just as much a part of life as life itself is...But, my poor mom did get quite the disgusted looks from other parents, when I'd suddenly start popping off with another round of questions... you know, in the grocery store and the like, because they were things like "What would you look like dead?" "What would you feel like?" --and in response to the explanation to that one, I asked if a dead person was as cold as frozen peas. I was a delightful five-year-old.

When grass grew back over where we'd dug up a hole to bury the cat that had died, I remember I wanted to dig her up, as with most children the permanence of her departure was something I just couldn't grasp. My mom explained decomposition and how all we would find, if anything, was her bones. My dad told me how decomposing things gave nutrients to dirt that let plants grow. That put in my mind that my cat was now the grass that had grown. From that stemmed a Pocahontas-like understanding of nature. Everything was A LIVING THING. (Oh, and then my dad was like, yeah plants are alive, and I was like yesssssssssssss! Cue my love for nature, directly tied to my childlike fascination with death). I came to view death as a powerful force, which in truth awed me. My understanding of life and death changed as I grew, and interestingly enough the first time I feared death was when I was 8/9 ish when we first starting to go to church...

It still does evoke a full-range of emotion from me, from awe to fear, and definitely respect. My mom's choice may have been less-than-typical, but I personally don't see anything wrong with it.


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