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.
Child in Coffin in the Death Room
Postmortem portraits of children are quite common. For modern viewers they may be particularly difficult to examine, but because child mortality rates were much higher in the past than they are today, photographs of lost children were very meaningful to families. Sometimes they were the only proof of that child’s existence.
This portrait appears to have been taken in the formal parlor of a family home. The parlor, or “death room,” was an important part of funerary rituals for most of the 19th century, the place where deceased family members were laid out for final respects. This image dates to c. 1890-1905, a time when many funerals were still taking place at home. Soon, however, death would begin to leave the home and by end of World War I most Americans will receive their health care in doctor’s offices and hospitals and most funerals will take place in funeral homes. As the funeral “parlor” came into vogue, the home parlor was rechristened a “living room.” A 1910 issue of Ladies Home Journal declared the “death room” to be a term of the past.
It is important to note that in this postmortem portrait the modest aesthetic of the past has given way to stylized, elaborate impulses. The girl is dressed more extravagantly and laid in a satin-lined casket.
It is easy to miss the shadowed, silhouetted figure in the right of the composition. Closer inspection reveals a figure that could be the photographer’s assistant, helping to stage the scene. This image is attributed to Oliver E. Aultman, who ran the Aultman Photography Studio in Trinidad, Colorado.
Mourning Cabinet Card
In the wake of the Civil War, photographic memorabilia became very popular and companies began manufacturing “cabinet cards,” images mounted on stiff card stock. This new medium allowed for mass production and was designed especially for portraits. Early on, these keepsakes were displayed in drawing room cabinets — thus the source of the name.
In the image below at left, you can see the imprint of the photography studio embossed on the card, a common detail on studio portraits. The white embossed borders around the card indicate it may date to the 1890s.
The deceased child in this image is posed as if sleeping. This was a common device in postmortem photographs of children.
The black card above at right is a classic example of a particular type, the mourning cabinet card, which was manufactured by several companies. These companies would send samples to the families of people who had recently appeared in the obituaries, mocked up with the appropriate birth and death dates and one of several popular memorial poems. The family could order the cards as is, or they could choose among various alternate styles detailed in the catalog. When a living image of the deceased (as in the example above) was not available, a seal could be chosen from a variety of options: masonic; Catholic, etc.
The cabinet card above was manufactured by H.F. Wendell and Company of Leipsic, Ohio, who would send an accompanying letter with the card that read:
“Dear Friend: This is a bright, glad, beautiful world… and yet its attractions now are, no doubt, unnoticed by you, for grim, merciless death has appeared in your midst and snatched from your companionship one of your loved ones.Your consolation is found in a consideration of the fact that your treasure is in heaven… ‘Twill only be a little while until you will cross the dark river and join your companion among the hosts of the saved on the other shore. And until then you will find solace in some such thoughts as the above, and in testifying to your faithful memory of the departed. In no more appropriate way can you express this fidelity of memory than by the possession of one of our elegant cabinet memorial cards. We trust you will pardon the liberty which we take in submitting to you for your examination a sample of these cards. You will observe that it is neat, simple and attractive…”
Young Girl Positioned on Couch
Postmortem portraits of African-Americans are relatively rare and background information on the subjects of these images is hard to come by today. This image is not an exception — little is known about its provenance.
The background of this portrait may well be a studio backdrop, indicating the photograph was not taken in the home. The very young girl is positioned on a couch in the “sleeping child” pose, a setup which was common throughout the 19th century.
The Orphans at Their Mother’s Grave
This half-stereograph image from the turn of the twentieth century falls into the category of bereavement and mourning memorabilia. Stereographs, double images mounted side by side to create a three-dimensional effect when seen through a special viewer, were very popular collectibles among middle-class Americans beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Many stereographs depicted tourist locations or portraits of famous individuals, but narrative scenes were also typical and viewing them was a familiar pastime.
The staged sentimental bereavement scene was a common type of narrative stereograph that reflected some of the Victorian preoccupation with mourning at the time. A parallel story to the one we see here — a mother grieving over an empty crib — was also commonly portrayed. This particular stereograph was produced by the Melander & Bro. photography studio of Chicago, who produced many such collectibles.
Note the ghostly image of the angel on the upper right side of the composition. The figure is perhaps meant to be the spirit of the mother, watching over the orphans. This feature is an interesting intersection between the mourning memorabilia genre and the “spirit photograph.” Early photographers would use superimposition and montaging to achieve a ghostly effect in images and, for a brief period, some viewers believed that the apparations they saw were actual spirits captured through the magic of photography. The style remained popular even after people began to view photographs with more critical distance.
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.
Between 1910 and the 1930s, a new style of postmortem portrait emerged. In these photographs the emotional force and focus had moved from the depiction of the deceased to the surviving family members. Their bereavement and perserverance became the heart of the message in these images. Rather than simply portraying the funerary scene, portraits began to tell the story of the funeral as a social event.
In the case of this image from c. 1910, this change is particularly stark. The family is gathered by a fresh grave and the buried casket — the physical reminder of the deceased — is not visible at all. Outdoor scenes also became more common at this time. The posing of the two little girls in prayer indicates that in spite of the outdoor setting, this image was taken with the formal intention of a portrait.
A North Dakota Burial
This image from c. 1900-1909 is more typical than the last in its composition. Most postmortem portraits that featured the survivors depicted them posed around the casket of the deceased loved one.
It is very common to find such scenes posed in front of the family home. Rural families often relied on the services of itinerant photographers who worked independently of studios. Along with family portraits and postmortem mementos, one of the common services these traveling photographers offered were home portraits.
Tsimshian Indian Funeral Scene
This image is an interesting example of the photographic intersection between the postmortem portrait and the ethnographic genre. While the date of the image is unknown, it is from the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome, a famous philanthropist, entrepreneur and avid collector. The extended family pictured gathered around the casket is from the native Tsimshian tribe of the Alaska/British Columbia region.
It is unclear whether it was typical for a Tsimshian family to sit for a postmortem portrait. It is possible that the person who took this photograph was a visiting photographer with an interest in ethnographic documentation and knowledge of common postmortem photographic conventions.
Family Poses With Dead Twins
The date on this image is unknown, but postmortem photographs of twins are not entirely uncommon. Multiple births frequently involved the death of one or more babies at a time when the mortality risks of childbirth were still high.
It is hard to be certain if this photograph was taken in a studio but that seems most likely, considering the indications that the photographer used a printing mask in order to produce the portrait with a decorative border (now gone).
Whether or not the photographer was a professional, he or she certainly succeeded in creating a poignant portrait. It was not uncommon for children to pose for photographs alongside their deceased siblings. In this case, the faces and expressions of the youngest “survivors” in the family lend a great emotional weight to the image.
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.
Greek Orthodox Family Funeral
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.