Post-Mortem Photography in the Victorian Era

The advent of photography made portraiture possible for middle and working class families.
... H. H. Davies/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 19th and early 20th century, taking a photograph of a recently deceased loved one was a common practice. Although it may seem creepy or morbid to contemporary minds, post-mortem photography was an accepted part of the mourning process during the Victorian era. In the United States, more post-mortem photographs were taken during this period than any other type.

1 Economic Realities

Prior to the advent of photography in the early 19th century, the only way to have an image of family members was to have a portrait painted. The skill and time involved restricted this service to those who had both the money to pay the artist and the time to sit idly. Photography made portraiture accessible to working-class people, although it was still a professional service and something of a luxury. Post-mortem photography emerged as a way to remember someone who had passed; because of the infrequency of having one's photograph taken, such photos were often the only image the family would have of the deceased. In a time when infant mortality was high -- more than 125 deaths for every 1,000 live births in the 1890s -- many of the subjects were babies or children.

2 The Culture of Mourning

Post-mortem photography provides a visual history of the evolution of American customs and beliefs about death. The earliest post-mortem photos focused starkly on the corpse, and little effort was made to disguise the natural physical process of decomposition. As the practice developed, some preferred to make the subjects appear as lifelike as possible. Photographers would apply blush to the cheeks, and sometimes lifelike eyes were painted onto the print after the fact. Post-mortem photos of children frequently included toys. Toward the end of the Victorian era, the focus more often included the surviving family, often involving staged scenes of dramatic grieving. The deceased might be displayed in a casket, surrounded by elaborate floral arrangements and keepsakes from life.

3 Family Tradition

Early post-mortem photographs, also known as "memento mori," a Latin phrase meaning "remember your mortality," demonstrate the lack of self-consciousness people in the Victorian era had regarding the dead. Funerals frequently took place in the home, making death a part of normal life. It wasn't until the end of World War I that most funerals took place in commercial funeral homes. In the context of the Victorian era, the photos were understood as a common part of the mourning process. Family members often displayed the photos in their homes or wore them in lockets, and copies would be distributed to loved ones.

4 A Matter of Life and Death

Toward the beginning of the 20th century, several developments brought an end to the broad appeal of post-mortem photography. The first mass-market camera, the Kodak Brownie, was introduced in 1901. As photography became cheaper and amateurs began to take photos themselves, people had plenty of opportunities to capture images of the living. Additionally, life expectancy increased dramatically after World War I, making death less sudden and unexpected. Commercial mortuaries and funeral parlors popularized embalming techniques and made the process of dealing with the dead more clinical and less personal.

Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.