Poignant and Unsettling Post-Mortem Family Portraits from the 19th Century


The 19th cen­tu­ry wit­nessed the birth of pho­tog­ra­phy. And, before too long, Vic­to­ri­an soci­ety found impor­tant appli­ca­tions for the new medi­um — like memo­ri­al­iz­ing the dead. A recent post on a Dutch ver­sion of Nation­al Geo­graph­ic notes that “Pho­tograph­ing deceased fam­i­ly mem­bers just before their bur­ial was enor­mous­ly pop­u­lar in cer­tain Vic­to­ri­an cir­cles in Europe and the Unit­ed States. Although adults were also pho­tographed, it was main­ly chil­dren who were com­mem­o­rat­ed in this way. In a peri­od plagued by unprece­dent­ed lev­els of infant mor­tal­i­ty, post-mortem pic­tures often pro­vid­ed the only tan­gi­ble mem­o­ry of the deceased child.”


Though unusu­al by mod­ern stan­dards, the pic­tures played an impor­tant role in a fam­i­ly’s griev­ing process and often became one of its cher­ished pos­ses­sions — cher­ished because it was like­ly the only pho­to of the deceased child that fam­i­lies had. Dur­ing the ear­ly days of pho­tog­ra­phy, por­traits were expen­sive, which meant that most fam­i­lies did­n’t take pic­tures dur­ing the course of every­day life. It was only death that gave them a prompt.

post mortem pic 3

The prac­tice of tak­ing post mortem pic­tures peaked in the 19th cen­tu­ry, right around the time when “snap­shot” pho­tog­ra­phy became more preva­lent, allow­ing fam­i­lies to take por­traits at a low­er cost, when every­one was in the full swing of life. Hence obvi­at­ing the need for post-mortem pho­tos. You can learn more about this bygone prac­tice by vis­it­ing the Burns Archive or get­ting the book, Sleep­ing Beau­ty: Memo­r­i­al Pho­tog­ra­phy in Amer­i­ca.

via Dutch Nat Geo/ Sci­ence Dump

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  • Stubbs says:

    It’s absolute­ly astound­ing to vis­it an old ceme­tery and see how many chil­dren used to die, as well as young women, many as a con­se­quence of child­birth.

  • Jim says:

    Makes you think, that maybe the “Good ol Days” weren’t so great and to appre­ci­ate what we have, as it can dis­ap­pear real quick.

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