Photography. Even before we got smartphones with cameras and video cameras, we had old fashioned watts and bulbs dated way back to the old days to capture special moments. Historic moments to share with generations, family moments to cherish as we grow older and of course moments of accomplishing our goals to help keep us motivated. However, not all photography is always so happy. There do come moments when viewfinders of cameras both past and present have had to capture some tragic moments in life. Like the death of loved ones, for example. Photographers at crime scenes have to take pictures of dead bodies and photographers may sometimes have to take picture of a person’s body at an open casket funeral. But there’s more to it than that.
You see, there is a tradition in photography that was once the norm for photographers that is now rarely practiced; it’s called post-mortem photography. This is a form of photography where family or photographers themselves would dress the dead bodies of loved ones as if they were alive and the photographer would use certain techniques to pose the bodies to make them appear alive. And here we shall present fifteen Victorian-era post-mortem photos. The images you’re about to see may be disturbing, so viewer discretion is advised and children should not read this list. Some descriptions will contain facts about the work of post-mortem photography, both to answer any questions you may have as well as add to the pictures themselves.
15. A Mother & Her Child
At first glance this may appear to be a mother gazing down lovingly at her baby child. Well it is…however, the child is dead. One can only imagine how this poor baby died. Back in the Victorian era, medicine was not at the advanced point that it is today. As such, child deaths from birth complications or exposure to illnesses with no cure were, sadly, the norm. But in the age of post-mortem photography the photographer would take this morbid memento as a way for the living relative to have one last memory with their loved one before they were buried. When it came to babies, it was easier to pose them since they’re known to doze off in photos anyway. So simply being held or propped up in a crib would do. And since photo quality back then wasn’t 1080 HD, it wasn’t like anyone noticed.
14. Father & Daughter
Here we present another parent-child picture, this time showing a father with his daughter. As you can tell by their darker skin post-mortem photography wasn’t just a privilege for those that were fairer skinned. It may not seem particularly important but I felt the need to point that out. This picture is somewhat clearer than our first one so you can see that the baby daughter’s arms are stiff from rigor mortis and that her eyes, for what we can make out, have a dead expression to them. Another key thing to note is that the father appears sad over happy as he holds his daughter. This child also appears to be older, perhaps a little over a year. But whatever the cause of death, I hope that she now rests in peace and that her father is reunited with his daughter in heaven.
13. Standing Tall
Now this probably looks like a regular man standing up straight and posing for the camera, right? Well it’s not. For those of you who haven’t figured it out from both the title and description, this man is dead. So now this begs the question: how is he able to stand and look so, no pun intended, lively? That is a very good question and the answer is actually in plain sight. See that piece of wood just behind his left foot, that looks like it’s a part of a coat rack? That is actually part of a posing stand that was used by morticians to help photographers better pose the corpses. Also, the way his eyes appear to be open? That is another trick photographers and morticians would do where they paint the eyes to seem like they’re alive. It was the best way to make it believable.
12. Two Brothers
In this somewhat grainy photo, we see two brothers sitting together. You can probably already guess from the way one brother is leaning against the other that he is deceased. One can only guess how hard it was for the live brother to sit so closely with his dead brother. In the photograph his expression is stoic. But I have a very strong feeling that the emotions he felt that day were nothing short of grief. Added with the fact that he would have to bury his brother after this photo makes it even sadder. So here’s a fact to chew on about post-mortem photography: The concept was originally developed in 1839, and a few years later the first official photograph of this practice was taken, in 1941. Though it is considered to be morbid and bizarre it was actually an accepted memorial practice that lasted up to the 20th century.
11. A Bonding Moment
Here we see two parents taking a photo with their daughter, who is deceased. From their expressions it seems that the father is trying to maintain some form of happiness but you can see clearly that he is sad. And the mother doesn’t even pretend to be happy and her grief shows in her face. Now as you can see the dead daughter actually looks as though she is alive, if only somewhat dazed and staring off into space. Well our next fact gives a reason explaining that. Along with the pose stand to prop up recently deceased people photographers would also style up the dead bodies and give them touches of makeup, which back then was mainly face powder and lip rouge. And since these were corpses there was no concern of the decedents getting lead poisoning. Not that it makes their deaths any less tragic.
10. Final Family Photo
This picture takes its spot at number ten on the list because, believe it or not, this is a rather unusual shot. You see for all the oddity that surrounds post-mortem photography it was tradition to either take close up photos of the corpse while they were in the coffin to make it seem like the person was laying in bed. Or the photo of the corpse would be taken with the body out of the coffin all together. But here we see a family doing something rather out of the norm by propping up the coffin while the dead father and husband is still in it. The picture is rather grainy but you can see the son and daughter are unsure of this, the baby doesn’t know what to make of it all and the mother tries to pull off a smile. What a scrapbook memory.
9. Sisterly Love
Now it’s a bit harder to tell who’s deceased and who’s alive here in this photo, but it’s the little girl with her eyes closed and her arms crossed over her body is the person that is dead in this photo. I’m sure that you all have picked up the sad pattern that most of these post-mortem photos involve children. And the sad fact is that it’s because it was mainly children that were affected by the rampant diseases and illnesses that had yet to get prescriptions or cures. Further more, adding to the sadness, is the fact that this is probably the most comfortable these children ever were prior to their deaths. Anyway, this is a picture of twin sisters in what will be their last picture together before the twin on the left is buried. At least she died peacefully with her sister beside her.
8. Grandpa And His Grandkid
Here we see another picture of a young child with an adult figure who could very well be their grandfather. We also see in this photo a less convincing form of giving a dead person a livelier appearance. Though the child is dressed in neat clothes, you can tell that he/she isn’t alive. The baby’s eyes have a lifeless expression and, further more, the grandpa is holding his grandkid up by both their body and by their head. One can only assume that rigor mortis had worn off and the body began to soften and loosen up. Often times families couldn’t afford to use a posing stand to keep the bodies of loved ones propped up, so relatives would hold them in a subtle kind of way to keep them still. But the way this grandfather is doing it isn’t quite as subtle.
7. Memorial Shrine
Here is another variation of post-mortem photography. And this one is a bit more pleasant than the others. This was also pretty popular back in the Victorian era where a shrine, usually made up of many flowers as seen here, was either set up around their bed or placed in the actual coffin. And here we see a young child laying in their bed as they are surrounded by a shrine of flowers. This, again, was a more pleasant form of post-mortem photography that wasn’t as morbid as the other examples. And in a way it is sort of artistic because it gives the deceased a beautiful surrounding. In a way this type of shrine work is still done in our modern time since people surround caskets with flowers. Whether people still put flowers in the coffin itself anymore is unknown, though I personally suspect that they don’t.
6. Obituary Photograph
Here in this photograph, we see an early Victorian example of what an obituary photograph was like. Granted these photos were seen more at the funeral service or hung up on the wall of a family member’s house instead of the newspapers, but this was how it started out. And in this photograph we have a young child, her picture most likely taken post-mortem, with her hair done up all nicely and a beaded cross necklace around her neck. For those you who can’t quite make out the words written above and under the picture, I’ll tell you what it says: “In Life, How Fair. The End, How Beautiful.” I don’t know who wrote these words but they are very beautiful. And I like to think that, even though she has long since passed on, the little girl appreciated those words very much.
5. Mourning Shot
Now I don’t know about the rest of you, but this has to be one of the saddest pictures on this list so far. The graininess makes it hard to see some of the faces however I can see grief even from an 18th century photo. The woman laying in the lap of the lady with the frizzled hair is dead, in case you couldn’t tell. And the people around her are obviously stunned and hurt by her death. I don’t know what arrangement was made to capture this picture. On the one hand it could be the relatives acting as though they’re shocked but on the other hand the photographer could have been at the right place at the right, yet still tragic, time and the shock among the group is sincere. Either way this photo is sad. I hope the woman is now resting peacefully.
4. Ravaged By Disease
I first would like to apologize to viewers, as this photo is one of the more graphically disturbing pieces on the list. So you can guess why it’s at number four. This poor boy had the most gruesome death of all the people here, and didn’t die peacefully. You see, he suffered from what is called congenital syphilis disease. This is a severe, disabling and even life threatening condition that affected infant children. They contract it from the pregnant mother if she has syphilis from a past sexual encounter, as it can spread through the placenta and infect the unborn baby. It’s still a major disease today with no cure as of yet. But back in the Victorian era, with few medical advances, it was much worse. It literally made for a not so pretty picture when a photographer was called in to take a post-mortem photo.
3. Photo-Op With The Kids
This is the fourth family photo of post-mortem photography on the list, and the third picture also. What puts this picture at number three is the fact that the family doesn’t have mournful or confused expressions on their faces as they take a picture with the dead little girl, who’s leaning limply on her mother’s lap. Actually they look kind of impatient. The mother in particular looks very impatient to the point that she looks irritated. I get it can be rather tedious to wait for a photographer to set up their equipment, especially in the modern era, but come on. You all could at least pretend to look upset. Or maybe they show their grief in different ways less obvious than how others portray emotion. Still this was very odd to see and thus deserves the number three spot.
2. Dearest Granny
We’re almost done with the list, and I felt it was only fair to give the second spot to this dearly departed old lady. Her picture is in a paper frame, and as you can tell is somewhat stained. And from her picture we actually see an example of close-up photos that I mentioned earlier. If the family didn’t want to prop up the dead body of a loved one then the photographer would improvise by leaning in very close to take a photo of the deceased person while they were in the coffin. It was in better taste to take a picture of the person without the coffin in the shot, unless the family requested otherwise. Also it’s been a while so let me drop this fact: it is said that the practice of post-mortem photography died in the Nordic countries, like Iceland, in the year 1940.
1. Bunny At Peace
And here we have our final item on the list. I’m sure you all are doing a double take at this and asking several questions, so let me answer them. Yes this is an animal. A baby rabbit specifically. No, this isn’t some Photoshopped prank. And as for why someone would take a post-mortem photograph of a person’s pet rabbit, even in the Victorian era, well there’s really no explanation for it. The sky was the limit on who or what photographers could photograph after their final moments if the client asked and paid well. And even back then people loved their pets dearly. So why not get a post-mortem photo of your bunny while it’s dressed in a silk dress and frame it? How this rabbit died is unknown, though it could have been from fright or illness, but at least he/she is in heaven.
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