“Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades.” That very early photographers’ slogan—introduced not long after Louis Daguerre announced his daguerreotype process in 1839—may seem ominous, but it reflects the reality of Victorian life. In an age before antibiotics, when infant mortality soared and the Civil War raged, death was a constant presence in the United States. And one prominent part of the process of memorializing the dead was taking a postmortem photo.
Postmortem photography evolved out of posthumous portraiture, a mode of painting in which wealthy Europeans (and eventually Americans) memorialized dead family members by depicting them alongside a slew of symbols, colors, and gestures associated with death. While the people—usually children—in these images might look reasonably healthy, the presence of a dead bird, a cut cord, drooping flowers, or a three-fingered grip (a reference to the holy trinity) often signaled that the subject was deceased. These types of images, popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries, served as cherished reminders of loved ones long gone.
By the 1840s, however, the production of memorial images started moving from the artist’s studio to the photography studio—and democratized in the process. No longer were the wealthy the only ones who could afford images of loved ones, in life or death. Photography studios spread throughout the country in the 1850s, and postmortem photography reached its height a few decades later. And whereas paintings might have cost large sums, and daguerreotypes were often luxuries, the ambrotypes and tintypes that followed sometimes went for just a few cents.
For the Victorians, the postmortem photo was just one aspect of an elaborate mourning ritual that often involved covering the house and body in as much black crepe as one could afford, as well as more intimate acts like washing the corpse, watching over it, and accompanying it to the gravesite. Early photos were sometimes referred to as “mirrors with memories,” and the Victorians saw photographing the dead as one way of preserving the memory of a family member. Photos of the dead were kept as keepsakes, displayed in homes, sent to friends and relatives, worn inside lockets, or even carried as pocket mirrors.
Photographing the dead, however, was a tricky business, and required careful manipulation of the body, props, and equipment, either at the photographer’s studio or at the home of the deceased. Though the majority of postmortem images depict the dead laid out in a bed or coffin, dead children were not infrequently placed in a mother’s lap to keep them upright (echoing the Victorian fashion for “hidden mother” portraits, in which a parent or assistant was draped in fabric as a backdrop with varying degrees of success). Adults were also most frequently shown in coffins, but occasionally photographed in chairs, sometimes holding a book or other props. After the photo session, photographers manipulated the negative, too—to make the dead person’s stare look less blank, or sometimes to paint pupils over closed eyelids.
Some sense of the difficulties of postmortem photography can be gleaned from remarks by leading daguerrotype photographer Albert Southworth printed in an 1873 edition of the Philadelphia Photographer: “If a person has died, and the friends are afraid that there will be a liquid ejected from the mouth, you can carefully turn them over just as though they were under the operation of an emetic. You can do that in less than a single minute, and every single thing will pass out, and you can wipe out the mouth and wash off the face, and handle them just as well as if they were well persons.”
Today, a lot of myths about postmortem photos circulate on the internet and among the general public. One of the biggest falsehoods, says Mike Zohn, co-owner of New York’s Obscura Oddities and Antiques and a long-time postmortem photography collector and dealer, is that the world’s photo albums are filled with lively looking photos of dead people.
The Victorians “had no issue showing dead people as being dead,” Zohn tells mental_floss. “They did not try to make them look alive, that is a modern myth.” He cautions that Pinterest and other websites are full of images of living people who have been labeled as dead, sometimes with elaborate (but incorrect) explanations of the types of tools that have been used to keep them propped up. “The Victorians also did not use strings, wires, armatures, or anything else to pose the dead,” Zohn adds. “They weren’t meat puppets that were strung up and treated like meat. They were respectful and treated the dead with dignity."
Part of the problem, writes noted postmortem photography collector and scholar Stanley Burns in Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement and the Family in Memorial Photography, American & European Traditions, is that the dead of the 19th century often looked better than the dead of today. We tend to prolong life with measures that weren’t available for the Victorians, but the epidemics of the 19th century killed quickly. “Except for children who died from dehydration or from viruses that left conspicuous skin rashes, or adults who succumbed to cancer or extreme old age,” Burns writes, “the dead would often appear to be quite healthy.”
Zohn particularly cautions against the idea that Victorians used posing stands to create upright post-mortems. "The posing stand is similar in design and strength to a modern day microphone stand," he says. "There is no way it could possibly hold up the weight of a dead body. If you see a photo with a person and a stand behind them, it’s a guarantee that the person is alive.”
Jack Mord, who runs the postmortem-focused Thanatos Archive, agrees about the posing stands. “People see the base of these stands in photos and assume it’s there to stand a dead person up … but that was never, ever the case,” Mord says. “Basically, if you see the base of a posing stand in a photo, that’s an immediate sign that the person in the photo was alive, not dead.”
Both Zohn and Mord also point out that many people have a misperception about how expensive photography was during the 19th century. Zohn says, “You could easily get a tintype taken for less than five cents—in some cases as low as one or two cents. It was well within the reach of almost all but the very poor, yet some falsely believe it was so expensive that they could only afford to have one image taken and it would have been a post mortem.” While that might have been true when the photography was first introduced—and it’s true that postmortems might have been the only photo ever made of an infant—it wasn’t a general rule.
Some books on postmortem photography mention checking the hands for signs the subject is dead, noting that swelling or discoloration can be a sign of death. But Zohn says it’s easy to misread this clue: “I’ve seen many images of clearly dead people with light-colored hands as well as clearly live people with dark hands. It’s usually caused by lighting and exposure, but could also be something such as suntanned hands that will appear darker.” A better clue, Zohn says, is the symbolism—flowers, folded hands, closed eyes. An adult lying stretched out on a bed with his or her shoes off can be a sign of a postmortem, since shoes can be hard to put on a corpse. And of course, if someone’s lying in a coffin, there’s a good chance they’re dead.
Postmortem photography more or less ended as a common practice by the 1930s in the United States, as social mores shifted away from prolonged public mourning, death became medicalized, and infant mortality rates improved. But “postmortems never truly ever ended,” Zohn says. Today, several companies specialize in taking photos of stillborn infants or newborns, and the practice of postmortem photography continues as a regular event in other parts of the world.
Today, most Americans have decided that our final image is the one we least want remembered. It’s easy for us to shut death out of our minds, and we don’t necessarily want reminders in our homes. But for the Victorians, death wasn’t weird—it was ordinary and ever-present. Burns writes that postmortems “were taken with the same lack of self-consciousness with which today’s photographer might document a party or a prom.”
All photos via the Thanatos Archive, used with permission. Identifying information provided where known.