Discover your inside story with AncestryDNA®

January 13, 2014

Early Customs in Photography: Post Mortem Photos

Some people collect these old photos. I don't care for them myself but I understand and accept that in the 19th century they were an acceptable custom. The custom was at its height in the VIctorian era.

Post-Mortem photos were often taken when a loved one, especially a child, died. Often it would be the only photo a parent had of a beloved son or daughter. 

The deceased would be dressed in their best clothes and carefully propped or placed, either alone or with the rest of the family, to appear alive. Often the deceased appeared to be sleeping.

We may find it morbid but it was customary. Many cultures also took photos of the deceased in their coffin.

You may view an exhibit of such photos at The Strangest Tradition of the Victorian Era: Post-Mortem Photography



The only photo I have of my great grandfather on my paternal line is one in which he is holding his dead daughter. Touching, but also creepy (at least from my 21st century perspective).

Liza P from BC said...

I find it an oddly comforting tradition actually. I wish we didn't have such taboos around death as we do now.
Thank you for the article and link.

Dawn said...

Thanks for the link. There were some very interesting photographs there. I remember picking up a old photo at a antique shop which was an unidentified post-mortem of a man in his coffin, but I lost it during a move. My father told me it was always a tradition in his family to take photographs of the deceased in their coffin at the funeral, although I only recall this happening when he took such photos at his mother's, father's and father-in-law's funeral. On second thought, there might have been one of his father's aunt Ora if I remember correctly. If there were more, I have not seen any other evidence of them in the family photograph collection, but I ramble. I think my great-aunt on the other side of the family mentioned that someone sent her mother a copy of her grandmother in her coffin when she died because it happened in California and the family in Michigan didn't get a chance to attend. Maybe because of the uncomfortableness factor, these did not survive in family collections.

Also wanted to mention this post I did of a scrapbook page I put together that includes a post-mortem of an infant. Included in the scrapbook page is a poem my daughter wrote which references that photo. I guess it affected her to see it. I remember when I first saw it, I knew there was "something wrong" with the baby but didn't know until many years later that it was a post-mortem. He was one of a set of twins, although both died young.

Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

It was certainly an "interesting" tradition, I was given a photo of an elderly emigrant I was researching. While I was pleased to finally "see" her, she did look rather witch-like in her black. Later a different family member told me it was a post-mortem image. I'd never heard of them before then. I suppose for emigrants the photos may have served a further purpose - to send back to the old country with news of the death, and I suppose, a funeral card. Thanks for the story and the link!