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Victorian Post Mortem Photography

Post Mortem Photography (also known as memorial portraiture or memento mori) is the practice of photographing the recently deceased. It can also be viewed as deaths photography. It was fairly common practice in the Victorian Era. In 1839, with the invention of the daguerreotype, portraiture became much more commonplace, as many of those who couldn’t afford the commission of a painted portrait could afford to sit for a photography session.

Post-Mortem Photography was cheaper and relatively quicker. It also provided the middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones.

post mortem photography

Post-mortem photography served less as a reminder of mortality than as a keepsake to remember the deceased; this was especially common with infants and young children. During the Victorian age, childhood mortality rates were extremely high, and a post-mortem photograph might have been the only image of the child the family ever had.

Children were often shown at rest on a couch or in a crib, sometimes posed with favorite toys or playthings. It was not uncommon to photograph very young children with a family member, most frequently the mother.

Post Mortem Photography
Post Mortem Photography


How were Post Mortem Photos?

The earliest post-mortem photos were usually close-ups of the face or shots of the full body and rarely included the coffin. The subject was usually depicted so as to seem asleep, or else arranged to appear more lifelike. Adults were commonly posed in chairs or even braced on specially-designed frames.

The effect of life was sometimes enhanced by either propping the subject’s eyes open or painting pupils onto the photographic print. Many early images have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse. Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types.

Later pictures show less effort at a lifelike appearance and often show the subject in a coffin. Some very late examples show the deceased in a coffin with a large group of funeral attendees; this type of photograph was especially popular in Europe and less common in the United States.

A variation of the memorial portrait involved photographing the family with a shrine (usually including a living portrait) dedicated to the deceased. The invention of the carte de visite, in the early 19th century, allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative, meant that copies of the image could, also, be mailed to relatives.

The practice peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century and eventually died out as “snapshot” photography became more instead of just photography of dead people.