Post-Mortem Portraits

October 17, 2006 at 5:37 pm (amazing things, art) ()

Oh wow. Creepy Victorian photographs of the dead.

In the olden days, people used to take pictures of their relatives just after death, often posed as if in sleep, sometimes accomapnied by living relatives. I recommend the complete gallery.

dead twins



  1. Yellmi said,

    I think that wasnt a very good idea because the should’ve had a little more respect to their dead relatives

  2. Rebecca said,

    That was HOW they respected their relatives. You must understand we are of a different era. One might consider holding a wake and EATING after a funeral to be disrespectful. This type of art was a beautiful repesentation of their loved ones as they part.

  3. Julie said,

    I think they also thought they could keep their presence through photographs

  4. chelsae said,

    aaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwhhhhhh datz lyk so lyk sad !!!! xxxxxxxxxxx !!!! lol lulz xxxxxxx

  5. babs said,

    i think thats kinda cool but they should have more respect 4 the dead cause that is mad wrong

  6. Gantain said,

    Alright folks, let’s think of it this way. Nowadays everyone’s got a camera. They’re small and portable with tons of memory, they’re in cell phones and now MP3-cellphone-camera-combos that can send your email and surf pages on the web such as this one. We take pictures without even thinking. But back in the Victorian era there were no such things. A camera was a large and clumsy tool that had no memory. The images were captured on light sensitive papers one at a time. Papers treated with chemicals that would over time poison and kill the cameraman himself. Cameras were difficult to use and very, very expensive. But, a cameraman (or woman, but there were very few) was willing to do the job because the new fad of having your picture taken ensured that there’d be customers.
    Before the camera, if you wanted a portrait of someone you sent for a painter. Painters traveled from town to town and would for a large fee come to your house for as many days in a row as it took to paint whomever you wanted painted. But this was expensive and time consuming. Suddenly there was a machine what could do the same job in a few hours and cost less enough that a poor family could afford it once or twice. So cameramen started traveling from town to town too, doing the same job.
    Now say you’ve had a daughter. You live far out in the country, in a town of a few dozen. Not an uncommon thing in those days. And a cameraman has yet to travel through your town in your daughter’s lifetime. Also not an uncommon thing. So you forget about it. She seems healthy and you get to see her every day so why would you need a picture of her? Besides people just didn’t think of pictures much, they were rare and hardly anyone had one. It’s like spinning wheels today. How often do you think of a spinning wheel? Probably not often, because they’re rare and hardly anyone has one. So, your daughter is three years old and looks just fine until one day she comes down with something and dies. Suddenly you realize that you have nothing to remember her by. You have no image of her at all save what resides in your mind. Can you imagine loosing your child today and not having a single picture? I can. When my father’s mother was killed, he was very young. His jealous step mother threw out all of the photos of his mother when she moved in a few years later. He had nothing. He once told me that he’d rather have had a picture of her in her coffin than nothing at all. And that’s what these people thought too. Their child was dead but there was one chance at saving something before they put them in the ground. They’d scrape up whatever money they could and send for a cameraman to come to them.
    Cameramen were experts at this. With great respect they’d pose the children as if sleeping in a crib or cradled in their mother’s arms. But the families did not want to look at the pictures and think of death right away, they just wanted to think of the brilliant little life that they’d known. So they’d do their best to look calm and not cry, to keep up the act that the child was just sleeping. Sometimes the parents would request that the child’s eyes be opened or even that open eyes be carefully painted over the closed ones once the picture had been developed, so that the child really looked awake. It was done out of love and with great compassion and care, there was nothing disrespectful about it. The entire process became a way of saying goodbye and a way of holding on. And in a time when a child may have had only three dresses and one pair of shoes this single tiny picture became the most important thing the entire family had by which to remember the one they’d lost.
    besides this still happens today. many babies died in the hopital only moments after birth and many falilies still take a few pictures with the dead child to remember the little gift that hardly got to live. It’s simply personal choice if you’d rather not have any picture at all.

  7. M said,

    Sad and beautiful.

  8. jessica said,

    if you are one of the living, why would you want to be with someone who means so much to you… AND THEY’RE DEAD!!! you shoud just bury them and be on with your day.

  9. nemo said,

    i think that the victorians had a good thing with the pictures of the dead, its like having a normal picture of say your own child, you’ll know that they’re dead, but you won’t see it as that you’ll see it as a life kept in a picture, kept as a moment in time of the little life you no longer have. if you were a mother/ father and lost your child, no doubt if you didn’t have a picture of them, it will be harder for you to get over the death, and regret not having that little moment in time that you can carry with you, and feel as thought they’re still with you. if i lost a child or someone very close to me, i’d take a picture if i hadn’t had a chance to.

  10. Ann Marie said,

    it is very sad yet this type of picture is beautiful.. im veryinterested on how the photographers can sit and take these photos with out crying.. and how do the loved ones of the dead stay and hold thee infants while the lay dead in their arms.. id be very saddend by it.. but it is a beautiful awkward way of remebering a loved one.. they should still do it these days

  11. Sue said,

    I know of one mother who had suffered multiple miscarriages. One pregnancy, she carried the fetus almost to term, but he was stillborn. They had these absolutely beautiful pictures of her holding his body. While you couldn’t actually see the baby (he was heavily swaddled), you could see the mother’s love and emotion as she looked at him. It was very important to them to acknowledge this child. Those who judge these photos as disrespectful should take a moment, step back, set aside any preconceived notions, and try to empathize with the ones who took them. After all, how is a photograph of a dead person any less respectful than painting a corpse’s face with heavy makeup and putting it on display in a coffin? As an above poster alluded to, the US practice of viewings could just as easily be seen as disrespectful by someone who’s culture doesn’t do that.

  12. Maria said,

    Our society has made death unnatural and unacceptable. When our loved ones die, they are taken away and “prepared” for burial by strangers. We have no idea what happens to the bodies of our loved ones because our participation comes down writing a check to the hospital, the mortuary, the cemetery and whoever else can get their hands on that multi-million dollar business of laying our loved ones to “rest.” What a joke.
    For thousands of years humans have prepared their loved ones for burial starting with cleansing the body and saying prayers to the final laying of the earth. It’s was a time for coming to the reality of their loved ones demise. A time to say goodbye. A time to do what needs to be done because they were responsible and cared for their loved ones while they lived and after they died.
    The big moneymaking business of death has taken that privilege away from us. I would never choose to hand over the body of my loved one to a mortuary. Trust me…I’ve seen that everything is not as it seems from the outside and not all mortuaries are to be trusted with handling our loved ones bodies with the utmost of care and respect.
    Child and infant mortality rates were so much higher a hundred years ago than they are now. Parents had to find a way to accept the death of their children and continue with their lives. Who are we to judge how they chose to grieve and how they chose to honor their deceased? It’s not morbid. It was their choice. And our society has made that practice dark and somehow ominous.
    The way death is disguised today, it is no wonder we need so many counselors and support groups to help us through our grieving process.

  13. Maggie said,

    This is really interesting. I don’t think it’s disrespectful, but I feel sort of like I’m intruding by looking at them. I wonder whether the children who pose with their dead siblings were used to it or if they felt strange or sad about it. Some of them look uncomfortable.
    Also, I don’t want this to sound disrespectful, but I am really curious about this: how did they preserve the bodies before the pictures?
    And did they look at these pictures in the future as just family portraits or as memorial photographs?

  14. Sad, creepy, but more sad. « RL SL Mashup said,

    […] victorian era where they would take photographs post-mortem in memorandum of their loved one. This particular photograph pains me the most; you can see the […]

  15. Rowan said,

    I have been studying the Victorian tradition of photographing the dead for a few years now and Gantain’s explaination is very accurate with regards to the attitudes of that era. There are even earlier examples of “quite wealthy families” actually calling in an artist to paint a portrait of the deceased. So the tradition is even older than the examples here.
    I have studied that photographs and can’t even imagine in my grief, holding my dead child in my arms or standing along side a dead sibling for the photographer as though nothing were wrong.
    You may be surprised to know that many families still carry on this tradition, albeit on a very private level. My own family doesn’t enture a loved one until a “last” photograph has been taken, sometimes with the family gathered around the coffin. It is pretty macabre when you think about it by contemporary criteria, but it seems to be something that supercedes current cultural standards. There is a very awkward moment when we wonder “who will do it?” because someone has to. The photo is then kept quiet and tucked away along with the rememberance card from the funeral and the published obituary. This has been going on for many generations and some future member of the family will inherit the collection of bizaar keepsakes……….

  16. Drew said,

    With the understanding this was a common ritual in the 19th century … gah!

  17. Dan said,

    These photos were taken out of respect and love for the deceased and are not, as some might think, weird or creepy. It was the last remembrance (or view) of a loved one that would ultimately be cherished for a lifetime. It was also customary in Victorian times and not something one would put on display. My own family has also maintained this practice.

  18. Hooligan Henry said,

    wow, this, this is some pretty uh, pretty disturbing stuff, but in the same way, captivating.

  19. jeff said,

    I actually took the time to read all the responses. I have to admit, it is a little bit disturbing, after all, we arent used to seeing pictures of the dead.
    But, some of you make a good point: this was done out of love. This was their way to say goodbye, and to hold on to a part of their loved ones forever…

  20. Boris from Austin Park said,

    One of the most precious things in my life is the small pile of pictures taken at the hospital when my daughter died 35 minutes after she was born. The only regret I have is that I don’t have more of them. That, a small lock of her hair (why didn’t I cut more?), and an ink pressing of her footprints, is among the things I treasure and revisit almost every day.

    When an adult dies we often have many tangible reminders and we mourn the life that is gone. When a baby or child dies we have very little to hold on to and we mourn for the future that could have been.

    For those who cannot understand this, I offer the above as a point of perspective but sincerely hope that you never have cause to.

  21. Laura said,

    back in them days people could not afford family photographs so when the relatives passed away it was cheaper having the photographs taken

  22. jonolan said,

    And in some countries today they cremate their dead, stir the ashes into banana soup and eat them. It’s done out of love and respect. Different times, different cultures, different action – same love and respect.

  23. Tracy said,

    as a few have said it was done out of love and respect they wanted to always have them around even if it was a picture after death. thoes of you who said it was not right look back at the pictures and look at the pain and sadness of the living ……And thoes babies and childern I just had tears running down my faceif that was my last time to hold to love and take a picture w/ my child I would still do it in this time frame

  24. Madison said,

    I have to say that this was disturbing to me at first, but I too took the time to read the comments on this topic and I am starting to agree with most of them. It is sad and captivating as well as a little strange.

    But the few with the bodies’ eyes open and especially the one of the women propped up as if reading a book did catch me off guard a little. Though they were very interesting, they were still kind of creepy.

  25. Nickie said,

    Looking at these pictures… it just breaks my heart. The obvious need of these people to keep a memory, any memory, of their loved ones alive, is something that i can’t even imagine having to go through. If you look at the pictures of fathers and mothers posing with their children, despite their calm face, you can see the pain in their eyes, in the set of their shoulders. I couldn’t even imagine having to look calm while staring down at your dead child as you waited for a picture to develop.

  26. Luana said,

    My baby died 11 minutes after being born. I have pictures of me holding him and of him by himself.
    I don’t blame them for taking pictures of their loved ones after death because they didn’t have any of them alive.

  27. Katie said,

    These types of portraits were not as common as people think. During that time in Era in Europe a lot of families did this because relatives lived so very far away that they wouldn’t see them for years on end. For a record of history in a family tree, relatives would send each other photos of the ones that passed because putting your name and letters in the obituaries were more expensive then getting your picture taken. It was easier to get carbon copies of the pictures and send them in an envelope to people who lived a far. It was considered a polite way of staying connected to the family that were alive and well and it gave a time for everyone to mourn.
    Post Death photos weren’t really meant to be emotional. Actually during the time of plagues and illnesses that it was common to loose children and family members. Some portraits were used as medical records and like everything that was done back then, they were done with great style.
    And just to let everyone know….morticians take photos of those whom they em-bomb and dress up as a means for a portfolio.
    It’s not disrespectful at all.
    We live in a world that needs to be connected. Photography is just an easy way to do it.

    Rutgers University BFA Photography Major,

  28. rosh said,

    It’s not creepy.
    Death is a beautiful thing that our minds will never comprehend. The victorians simply wished to capture there loved ones in picture, which was a lot harder back then.

  29. lucy said,

    It is very sad to see such lovely little children dead. But that was then and times have moved on, I just hope the family moved on and remembered their little ones, I dont find it scarey, just very sad, and I understand why they did it, just different times now,,,,,,

  30. GloomyDoll said,

    This tradition still continues. My grandmother has pictures of all her deceased older sisters. I’ve seen these pictures and I’m ok with it.

  31. Nicole. said,

    i think its quite intresting something new that happened my great grandma has an album of her relatives that died a picture of her twin sister,dad,mum,child,grandpa,grandma and 12 babies

  32. Kat said,

    I’m so torn about pictures like this. I realize the reason people took these pictures, and can understand it. But at the same time, I find them disturbing. Yet I know this likely is because I’ve grown up in a different era, with different expectations about how death is handled. I find the pictures very sad to look at.

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