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Photographing the Dead

Memento Mori ~ Photographing the Dead

As photography became more accessible to the masses—and more affordable—in the mid-1800s, a new photographic art form emerged, that of photographing the recently deceased. This is often referred to as postmortem photography, memorial photography, or memento mori, a reminder that we all must die.

Photographs of the recently deceased served as a keepsake for friends and family, a way of keeping the image of the deceased’s face forever in one’s mind. The later invention of the carte de viste meant that photographic copies could be made inexpensively from a single negative and distributed to all and sundry. Anybody anywhere could—and probably did—own pictures of dead friends and family members.  

In Victorian America, infant mortality rates were very high, so children were often the subjects of postmortem photography. Oftentimes, a memorial photograph of a child would be the only picture that would ever be taken of that child. 

In the early days of memorial photography, the victim was often dressed in his or her finest clothes and placed in a natural setting (instead of in a coffin), such as on a bed or a divan. Sometimes the subject was propped up in a chair or in a frame made especially for the purpose. Children were very often photographed with a doll or a favorite toy—or with their mother or both parents standing or sitting beside them. Some people preferred having the eyes of the deceased propped open to give the verisimilitude of life. Some photographers, for a small fee, would paint or draw the eyes in during the photographic process to give the illusion that the deceased was looking into the camera. These are probably the most eerie and bizarre of the postmortem photographs.

Later examples of postmortem photography show less emphasis on making the deceased appear lifelike and oftentimes showed him or her lying in a coffin. Many of these pictures were taken in someone’s home, as it was the custom to have the deceased lie in state at home so friends and relatives could gather to pay their respects and say their final farewells.

Postmortem photography is still practiced in some parts of the world, but modern cultures generally regard photographing the dead as something sensationalist and vulgar, in marked contrast to the beauty and sensitivity of the earlier tradition. Changing attitudes about photographing the dead reflect a cultural shift in how death is perceived. In 19th century America, death was for most people much more a part of the everyday experience of living; most people died at home in their own beds. Since that time, death has become sanitized and removed from the home and made to seem much less a part of the natural order of things.  

Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp 

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