Post mortem photography, also known as death photography, was something that was very popular in a time when cameras weren’t accessible. Also sometimes known as memento mori, death photography was the act of photographing a deceased love one soon after their passing. For many, taking photographs was expensive and time consuming, and it wasn’t a practice that happened often, so these photographs were the only thing left for some people to mourn.
It began in 1839 with the invention of the daguerreotype. This was the very first introduction of the photographic process. In 1839, things weren’t as simple as quickly pulling out your front camera and snapping the photo. It took up to several minutes to photograph subjects, meaning that the families were forced to sit around their dead loved ones while being photographed. Often times, the subjects were propped up and made to look like they’re alive, so that those who hold onto the photo can always remember their loved one as they were before they passed.
As photography advanced and became more accessible and popular, the need for post mortem photography greatly decreased. However, post mortem photography is still around today. The practice is mostly used for criminal purposes, so as to photograph crime scenes. Instead of taking photographs today, our family members are able to view numerous pictures of us throughout our lifetime, leaving little purpose for the use of death photography now. Though the practice has greatly diminished, the photographs have still remained as a piece in our history.
15. These Were The Only Photographs Of Some People
The reason family members of deceased love ones wanted to photograph those who passed in the first place was because it would be their last chance to have a picture of them. In our modern times, we take pictures every day, some of ourselves, some of others, and sometimes we get our pictures taken when we don’t even want to. But in the 1800s when post mortem photography was popular, taking pictures was much less accessible. After a person died, they would quickly start to decompose, so it was crucial to get the picture taken immediately after they die. Also, some would only have the opportunity to take the photos once, so they would wait until a loved one died to take a picture. That way, once a child dies, they could remember them at their age when they died, rather as the person they were when they were younger when they died.
14. It Took A Long Time To Take Photographs
It took a much longer time to take pictures back then. Now, we have the ability to take pictures in a snap; we can even pull up a camera on our phone from our home screen, without even unlocking it! Also, we have the ability to take multiple pictures a second, and are advancing our picture-taking technology constantly. However, in the post-mortem photography era, it took anywhere from 30 seconds to 15 minutes to take a picture. This meant that not only would people pose with their deceased loved ones, but they also had to sit there for several minutes at a time! It’s hard enough to get animals, children, and just anyone to sit for a picture nowadays, but to make them sit for longer and with a dead body next to them must have been much more difficult. In the above photo, the infant on the chair is dead while surrounded for several minutes by its older siblings.
13. The Deceased Subject Is Made More Clear
Due to the long exposure time, the deceased person being photographed would appear much more clear in the picture. This is because even when we are trying our hardest to sit still and not move when we have to be stationary, we still make small involuntary movements when trying to remain steady. This results in the subjects that are alive appearing much more blurred and unsteady in the pictures. In the above picture, you can see that the young girl in the middle is the dead one, as she is much clearer than her parents who sit beside her. Often times on the internet, people attempt to sell photographs online stating that they’re post mortem, when in fact, all of the subjects are alive. If you ever find yourself interested in purchasing these memento mori, keep in mind that the subjects would appear very clear, and if they are alive, they will appear much blurrier.
12. Memento Mori Means “Remember The Dead”
Post mortem photography is also known as momento mori, which translates into “remember the dead”. Not only does this insinuate remembering the actual deceased and using the photo as a memorial, but it also acts as a reminder that we will all die one day, and that death is inevitable and something to be embraced rather than feared. These photos seem gruesome and creepy to us now, but it was a very common practice for those living in this era. Throughout cultures all across the world, people have been known to constantly change mourning habits and there have been other post mortem rituals even creepier than these photographs, however. Taking these pictures is one of the more beautiful and striking ways people have mourned. The photographers take pictures at the very last moment these subjects are alive, meaning that it is the most recent way to remember the loved ones, rather than having random pictures from different times in their lives.
11. It Was Most Common Among Children
In a large amount of post mortem photographs, the subjects are often children. This is mostly due to the fact that infant mortality and death among children was much more common in this era. There weren’t vaccines, especially mandated vaccines, like there are today, so it was much more common for children to die from these diseases we vaccinate against during their younger years. Families would also have many more children because they knew the chances of one of their children dying were much more likely. Also, adults had more time throughout their lives to get their photographs or have paintings made of themselves. Parents were much more likely and willing to take photographs of their children as well because they were more dear to them and their death was more unexpected than the death of someone elderly. Women were also popular subjects as women were much likelier to die during childbirth than they are now.
10. They Were Positioned So They Looked Alive
Although those taking the pictures and having them done knew their subjects were dead, people still wanted the deceased to look alive so that they could remember them like that. They would often position them to look like they were doing their favorite activity, or would position them in common positions to make them simply look asleep rather than dead. The woman in this photograph looks as though she has just fallen asleep reading. The blurry exposure on her face happened because she apparently slid positions while the picture was being taken. But you can see in the limpness of her arms that she is in fact deceased. And even if she had been just sleeping, she would still have a clearer exposure on her face, and would have woken up if she had actually slid down on the couch. But in fact she is deceased, and photographed doing her favorite activity: reading.
9. Sometimes People Would Stand Behind To Prop Them Up
Once dead, bodies become very limp as there are no muscles to hold them up and keep them propped upright. So in order to make the subjects appear living, they would often use a mechanism to help prop them up while being photographed. I remember being a little girl and having stands for dolls that consisted of a metal base and a system of wires that wrapped around the doll’s waist and neck in order to help prop them up and display them. The mechanism photographers used is the same that little girls use nowadays to prop up their dolls. It would have a system of wires to hold up their back, head, and arms to be able to easily position them to make them look like they are doing different activities they might be doing if they’re alive. So basically they would turn dead people into mannequins to use as models for photography.
8. They Were Posed With Their Favorite Objects
Just like how we bury our loved ones with things they enjoyed and that meant a lot to them in our modern day, in the post mortem photography era, people would do something very similar. Children were often posed with their favorite dolls or toys, and adults were posed with their favorite book or other item that they used often. This was to be an extra way to help remember the loved one as they were alive. The little girl in the picture above was surrounded by her dolls to make it look as though she fell asleep while playing. I wonder if maybe people would also tell others that their children were actually alive in the picture when it was taken to try and show them off as being alive. They also would take pictures with several children playing around the deceased loved one to make them look alive as possible. We’re very lucky to live in a time when we can easily snap candid photos.
7. Sometimes Multiple Subjects Were Dead
Since it was so time consuming and less accessible to photograph, when multiple people would die at once, many would take the opportunity to photograph the deceased together rather than give them each their own picture. In the photo above, a mother and her triplets are shown. Unfortunately, the mother and two of her children had passed, due to labor and probably being underweight or malnourished. Also it was more likely for multiple people to die at once, as there were many more very contagious and deadly diseases at this time. If someone in your family has a contagious disease now, they can easily get it treated before passing it on to you. And even if you do catch it, you can easily just get treated for it as well. But illnesses were much more common and harder to keep under control during this time of post mortem photography.
6. They Were Very Expensive
These post mortem photographs were much harder to get taken and required a lot of work, resulting in them being very expensive. Even in our world today, professional photography is extremely expensive. A wedding could cost upwards of 5,000 just for a weekend. Imagine how pricey it was in a time when very few people had cameras and the skills required to take the picture. And you couldn’t just print it on your phone and share it across social media like you can today. Instead, they had to pay for the supplies and to get it printed, which meant there was usually only one copy of the photo. Not only would just getting a picture taken be extremely pricey, but hiring someone who is also willing to work with the dead was also costly. You couldn’t just use anyone, as sometimes there was a risk of catching the disease that might have caused the death in the first place. That is why many of the photographs you see of these dead people were probably of wealthy families.
5. They Were Listed In Newspapers
Nowadays we still have obituaries and postings of how and when someone died. But they are much less descriptive. Even if someone dies in a car accident, the family is most likely to post something along the lines of “he died suddenly” not giving a complete description or reason behind the death. There isn’t even a picture with the obituary often, and when there is, it’s a professional or candid picture of the person alive and smiling. In post mortem photography era, it was much more likely for people to be more descriptive of their loved ones and some of the gruesome details of their death. They would also often share the image of the dead person, something we would almost never do nowadays. They didn’t have easily preservation methods like we do today, however, so when someone died they would have to have a funeral much quicker and weren’t able to wait for the convenience of the weekend like we do now. This meant not everyone would be able to make the funeral or travel as quickly, so sometimes people relied on the announcements.
4. Eyes Would Be Painted On The Photographs
Sometimes, when it was especially hard to make the dead loved one look alive, eyes would be painted on the picture after it was taken in order to make them look alive. As if the original picture wasn’t creepy enough, the addition of the googly eyes makes the pictures all the more chilling. The only type of photography available was black and white, so often times people would also add some red or pink tints to the deceased’s cheeks to give them some life and make them appear more alive. You can tell that the child who is pictured above had both done. At a first glance it doesn’t seem so bad, but once you realize he is not alive and what was done, it’s hard to get the gruesome image out of your head. Another hint to tell that a person has passed is also that they are often placed with flowers as another sign of loss and mourning.
3. It Could Be Hard To Tell Who Is Alive
Through all of these tricks that the photographers and families took to make the deceased look living, it is extremely difficult to tell exactly who is dead sometimes. In the picture above, can you guess which one is dead? It would appear that the one on the right is dead, as he is standing in a much simpler pose and you can even catch a glimpse of the stand propping him up behind him. So if you guessed that he is the dead one, you are right. But if you guessed that the one on the left is dead, you are also right. Yep, it’s true, both men in the above picture are deceased. It’s very hard to tell that he is dead as well, since he even seems to have a smirk, but you can still make out what looks like a stand holding him up at his feet. Their cause of death is unknown, but one could only assume their chilling death story.
2. Even Animals Were Photographed
Our pets are often part of the family. People (definitely me) seem to post way more pictures of their pets than they do of their friends or family. We talk about them like they’re our children, and they often fill the role of our best friend. So it makes sense that people would still go out of their way to photograph their deceased pet. In the above picture, all of the girls are alive, it is only the dog who has passed on. Could you imagine how wealthy they must have been to be able to have a photograph taken just for the death of their pet? It makes more sense than the other pictures, as it is still a nice family photograph of the sisters. And it’s still much less creepy than people who get their pets stuffed and turned into sculptures, a practice still popular today.
1. Photographs Were Taken No Matter What The Circumstances
No matter the state of the deceased, photographs were taken under any circumstance. There are many pictures of burn victims or victims of gruesome flesh eating or deforming diseases. The woman pictured above is only suffering from basic post death decomposition. Of all the lengths people go to to ensure that their loved ones look alive as possible, it seems very strange that anyone would want a picture of their decomposing family member. However, some people are so desperate for memories in their times of tragedy that they’ll do whatever it takes to remember their loved one. I suppose it’s better to have a picture than no picture at all, right? The death of the subject is unknown, and why the picture was delayed is also unknown. But it is speculated that perhaps she was travelling before dying and had to be taken back home, possibly to a different state, delaying the time until she could get her picture taken. Or perhaps she had died and wasn’t found for several days, causing her to decompose quickly. Either way, the picture is extremely disturbing, and we’re a little grateful we don’t participate in this photographic practice anymore.