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.
Early Portrait in Coffin
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.
Man Posed With Newspaper
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.