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Gone But Not Forgotten: Memorial Photography

Memorial photographs recall a time when death played a more visible role in day-to-day life and provide context to reflect on current attitudes about death in American society.

Note: This feature contains graphic images of death that may not be appropriate for all viewers. Discretion is advised.

Postmortem photography, photographing a deceased person, was a common practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These photographs were often the only ones taken of their subjects and much pride and artistry went into them. It is astounding that although postmortem photographs make up the largest group of nineteenth-century American genre photographs, they are largely unseen, and unknown. Today we struggle to avoid the topic of death; as a result we have closed the door on those images, which reflect an American culture in which death and mourning played a visible and active part.

What emerges from these images is a vivid visual history of the changes in American customs. We can see the change in death concepts and funerary practices, from the image of death as a stark Puritan journey for a sinner to the late Victorian beautification of death and its interpretation as a restful sleep for a redeemed soul.

These photographs were a common aspect of American culture, a part of the mourning and memorialization process. Surviving families were proud of these images and hung them in their homes, sent copies to friends and relatives, wore them as lockets or carried them as pocket mirrors. Nineteenth-century Americans knew how to respond to these images. Today there is no culturally normative response to postmortem photographs. Discussions of death in books are prolific, and we are accustomed to images of death as part of our daily news; but actual death, as a part of private lives, has become a shameful and unspoken subject.

Excerpted with permission from Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America by Dr. Stanley B. Burns of The Burns Archive. All rights reserved.

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Early Portrait in Coffin

Postmortem portrait of Miss Elizabeth Cooper

This image from c. 1843 is typical of early postmortem portraits, which tended to focus primarily on the corpse (particularly the upper half of the body) and displayed a plain and sometimes severe sensibility. This style and focus reflected religious beliefs of the time about death and salvation.

During this period of postmortem photography, few attempts to mask the signs of death were made. Many portraits portrayed the physicality of death in a very frank manner. This lack of self-consciousness about showing physical death is particularly discombobulating for modern viewers.

Here the woman subject is dressed plainly with a simple bonnet that reflects the style of the time and she is photographed lying in a plain coffin. This would have been a typical setting in 1843, when decorative, embellished caskets were only beginning to be manufactured and marketed. Most Americans were still being buried in a plain coffin.

The woman in this image is identified as Miss Elizabeth Cooper, aged 29 years and eight months, of Geneva, New York.

Credit: © Stanley B. Burns, MD and The Burns Archive

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Man Posed With Newspaper

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Early on in the practice of postmortem photography, it was not uncommon for photographers to pose their subjects sitting up in a chair in a lifelike pose. We know that in many such cases the image was later manipulated to appear to be a living portrait of the subject, if no such image existed. At a time when photography was a new medium, a living portrait of a deceased loved one would have been a precious keepsake in a middle-class family.

This may well have been the intention in the case of this image from 1868. Without paying careful attention to details such as the man's hands and the blanket settled between him and the chair, we might think, at first glance, that he is asleep. The newspaper he is posed with is an unusual touch that isn't commonly seen in surviving images from this era.

Credit: © Stanley B. Burns, MD and The Burns Archive

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Setting the Funerary Scene

As photographic conventions and beliefs about death changed, a shift took place in the focus of postmortem photography. The camera lens began to move back from the corpse of the deceased to capture the staged funerary "scene" as a whole.

Here the woman subject has been arranged in her satin-lined jewel-box casket — a style of burial box which was beginning to gain popularity at the time that this photograph was taken, between 1890 and 1900 — and, together, the objects in the room and the casket form a symmetrical and pleasing composition. She is surrounded by mementos, she is holding a Bible in her hands, and flowers decorate the lower half of her open casket in a typical scene.

Early postmortem photographs rarely featured flowers but they came to play a large role in creating beautiful funerary scenes.

This portrait appears to have been taken in a home parlor and framed photographs, including a large portrait of the deceased woman, are placed in the background atop the piano. The presence of these images provides an indication of the role that portraits, living and dead, played in funerary practices at the time. In today's typical funerals, the deceased is often laid out in a closed casket and surrounded by living images.

Credit: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, #X-17493

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Sleeping Beauty

This image from c. 1910 is a classic example of the "slumber room" portrait, a highly-staged style of postmortem photograph with an elaborate Victorian funerary scene. These portraits depicted the deceased as if resting in a sweet sleep, often surrounded by canopy-like drapery and a multitude of flowers.

Depending on how affluent the family was, the surroundings were as extravagant and decorative as possible. The brocaded wallpaper, gilded framed paintings on the wall and multitude of roses adorning the jewel box casket all make this image a good example of the incredible effort put into staging these portraits. The family of the woman seen here probably would have proudly displayed this memento of their loved one's life and their devotion to her in death.

By this time, when embalming had become common and it was possible to apply makeup to soften the appearance of the deceased, there was a lot of emphasis on beautifying the corpse. There are almost no signs of physical death in this image. As attitudes about death had changed, so had approaches to portraying the bodies of the dead in portraits.

Credit: © Stanley B. Burns, MD and The Burns Archive

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Greek Orthodox Family Funeral

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By the 1930s, when this photograph was taken, the practice of postmortem photography had fallen out of favor with most middle-class Americans. It did, however, continue to flourish among immigrant and ethnic working-class communities. Many immigrant families sent postmortem portraits to relatives at home and the photographs played an important role in maintaining family bonds over great distances.

Religious symbols figure prominently in portraits from this era and it was common for priests to pose with the family. A typical arrangement would be to take the photograph on the steps of a family home or church. This portrait of a Greek family gathered around the casket of a relative is very representative of images from this period.

Postmortem portraits dating after the 1940s are quite rare. As American funerary practices and attitudes about death changed, postmortem photography did not remain a part of the accepted memorial and mourning process. Today, many people feel that material evidence of a loved one's death would prolong grieving, and postmortem photography is not considered a normal practice in mainstream American culture. In recent years, however, some have begun to argue that taking photographs, particularly in the case of neonatal and infant death, can have a therapeutic effect for a grieving family.

Credit: Denver Public Library, Western History Collection, #X-25546, Rocky Mountain Photo Company





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