The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 made portraiture much more commonplace, as
many of those who were unable to afford the commission of a painted portrait could afford
to sit for a photography session. This cheaper and quicker method also provided the
middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones.
Post-mortem photography was very common in the nineteenth century when "death occurred in
the home and was quite an ordinary part of life." As photography was a new medium, it is
plausible that "many daguerreotype post-mortem portraits, especially those of infants and
young children, were probably the only photographs ever made of the sitters.
These photographs served as keepsakes to remember the deceased. The later invention of
the carte de visite, which allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative,
meant that copies of the image could be mailed to relatives. Approaching the 20th
century, cameras became more accessible and more people began to be able to take
photographs for themselves.
1. People Would Have Photos Taken of Their Loved Ones in Caskets
The earliest Victorian death photos were simple: the dead person was photographed in a
casket, usually in the parlor of their home before loved ones came to pay their respects.
These were a simple way of remembering the deceased, and served as a form of memento
mori, a popular Latin phrase of the time that translates to "remember that you will die."
2. Mothers Would Hide Behind a Sheet While Holding Their Deceased Children
These photos, called "hidden mother" pictures, were taken because the mother didn't want
to be seen. So she simply hid behind a sheet and held the baby in her arms. (In some
cases, the baby photographed isn't dead, the mother is simply there to hold him or her
still, so researchers often have a hard time determining which of these photos feature
3. Artists Would Paint Open Eyeballs on the Dead's Eyelids
Later in the Victorian period, photography advanced to the point where simple,
Photoshop-like touches were possible. After the picture was developed, things like rosy
cheeks could be painted on to make the deceased look more lifelike. Open eyes were
painted onto the photo negative to further disguise the dead as the living.
4. Stands Sometimes Held Up the Bodies of the Deceased
In order to make the deceased look so full of life that he or she was standing, special
stands were used. These stands would be disguised by curtains and by the body of the
deceased person itself. In this case, you can see the base of the stand behind the boy's
feet, and someone or something is holding his head straight from behind the curtain.
5. Parents Would Pose Alongside Their Dead Children
Childhoood death rates during the Victorian era were very high, thanks to diseases like
smallpox and tuberculosis. Many children did not make it to the age of three. Sadly, the
only photo taken of an entire family might be one with the youngest in a coffin.
6. Brothers and Sisters Would Pose Alongside Their Deceased Siblings
In some cases, living siblings would be made to pose alongside their recently deceased
brothers and sisters. This particular picture has three living brothers and one sister
lined up, with their dead sister on the very left. This type of family portrait would be
displayed in the parlor of the home, so that everyone would remember the deceased
7. Props Were Used to Help Remember the Dead
During the later part of the Victorian period, the deceased were posed with some of their
favorite items. Young girls were photographed alongside dolls, while adults were posed
with other things, like books, letters, or flowers. This was done to help the living
remember their dead loved ones and their personality, profession, or hobbies,
8. Photos of Deceased Infants Were Unfortunately Popular
The mortality rate for infants was extremely high during the Victorian period due to the
lack of penicillin and vaccinations. Because of this, there are a lot of surviving post
mortem photographs of deceased infants. These pictures helped the parents of these
children remember their very short lives.
9. A Living Spouse Posed Alongside an Expired One
For married couples who couldn't afford standard family photographs, pictures were
usually taken on two different occasions: the day of their wedding, and the day that one
of them died. The latter pictures were taken to prove how devoted the surviving spouse
was to the deceased.
10. Some Photos Were Taken With More Than One Deceased Person in Them
Some post-mortem photos had multiple generations of deceased people in them. This photo,
of a father and child, is a good example of that. Even though the man looks alive, the
stiffness of his hands and the blank look on his face make it obvious that he is not.