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Post-mortem photography

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture or a mourning portrait) is the practice of photographing the recently deceased. Various cultures use and have used this practice, though the best-studied area of post-mortem photography is that of Europe and America.[1] There can be considerable dispute as to whether individual early photographs actually show a dead person or not, often sharpened by commercial considerations.

The form continued the tradition of earlier painted mourning portraits. Today post-mortem photography is most common in the contexts of police and pathology work.

History and popularity

Post-mortem photograph of Emperor Frederick III of Germany, 1888.
Post-mortem photograph of Emperor Frederick III of Germany, 1888.

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.[2] This cheaper and quicker method also provided the middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones. Before this technological advancement, post-mortem portraiture was restricted to the upper class, who continued to commemorate the deceased with this new method.[3]

Post-mortem photography was very common in the nineteenth century when "death occurred in the home and was quite an ordinary part of life."[4] 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. The long exposure time made deceased subjects easy to photograph.'"[4] (The problem of long exposure times also led to the phenomenon of hidden mother photography, where the mother was hidden in-frame to calm a young child and keep them still.[5]) According to Mary Warner Marien, "post-mortem photography flourished in photography's early decades, among clients who preferred to capture an image of a deceased loved one rather than have no photograph at all."[6] Postmortem photo[7] graphy provided the staple for many photographic businesses in the nineteenth century. According to Nancy M. West, author of a journal article "Camera Fiends: Early Photography, Death, and the Supernatural", photography advanced at a time during outbreaks of cholera and tuberculosis. Fearful of their mortality, many embraced this new medium, preserving the image of the dead loved one.

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.

Post-mortem photography as early as the 1970s was taken up by artists, and continues today. Audrey Linkman,[8] Christopher Townsend[9] and Lauren Summersgill[10] have all researched this particular area of study. Artists include Jeffrey Silverthorne, Hans Danuser, Hannah Wilke, Nick Waplington, British photographer Sue Fox, Nan Golden, and Andres Serrano's series The Morgue. Summersgill argues that artists in America in the 1990s used post-mortem photography to fight against the increasing medicalisation of death.[11]

Personal post-mortem photography is considered to be largely private, with the exception of the public circulation of stillborn children in the charity website Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep [12] and the controversial rise of funeral selfies on phones.[13]

Evolving style

Syrian bishop seated in state at his funeral (ca. 1945).[14]
Syrian bishop seated in state at his funeral (ca. 1945).[14]

Jay Ruby's analysis of various styles in post-mortem photography – particularly the poses of the deceased – argued that key poses reflected cultural attitudes toward death.[15][9] Ruby argued for the dominance of the ‘Last Sleep’ pose in the first forty years of post-mortem portraiture. In the ‘Last Sleep’ the deceased's eyes are closed and they lay as though in repose, which Ruby argued reflected the American desire to associate death with sleep.[15]

Another popular arrangement was to have the deceased presented seated in a chair or arranged in a portrait to mimic life because these photographs would serve as their last social presence.[16] In the Victorian era it was not uncommon to photograph deceased young children or newborns in the arms of their mother. The inclusion of the mother, it has been argued, encourages one to see through the mother's eyes: "The desire to see through the mother’s eyes, and even identify with such pain would have been more potent at the time, when the daguerreotype would be shown to friends and family who might have known the child and certainly knew the family."[17]

Nineteenth-century photograph of a deceased child with flowers
Nineteenth-century photograph of a deceased child with flowers

While some images (especially tintypes and ambrotypes) have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse, it is untrue that metal stands and other devices were used to pose the dead as though they were living.[18] The use by photographers of a stand or arm rest (sometimes referred to as a Brady stand), which aided living persons to remain still long enough for the camera's lengthy exposure time, has given rise to this myth. While 19th-century people may have wished their loved ones to look their best in a memorial photograph, evidence of a metal stand should be understood as proof that the subject was a living person.[18]

Later photographic examples 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.[8]

As noted above, post-mortem photography is still practised and is common in America among women who experienced stillbirth; commemorated on websites such as "Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep".[19] This style of mother holding child was also common in the Victorian era when death of infants was common.[20] Photographs, especially depicting persons who were considered to be very holy lying in their coffins, are still circulated among faithful Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians.[21]

Cultural nuance

United States

In America, post-mortem photography became an increasingly private practice by the mid-to-late nineteenth century, with discussion moving out of trade journals and public discussion.[15] The now more private practice was studied by anthropologist Jay Ruby who was able to find limited information after the turn of the century, but noted a resurgence in the so-called "mourning tableaux" - where the living were photographed surrounding the coffin of the deceased, sometimes with the deceased visible - in America in the 1930s.[15] He was also able to find examples of death photography as a private practice in America his own time - the 1960s.[20] The anthropologist László Kürti studied Hungarian immigrant post-mortem photographs and analyzed their style and content.[22] Barbara Norfleet investigated further and discovered the practice of post-mortem photography continued in America right up until World War II "at least among rural and urban working-and middle-class families [in ethnic minorities]."[1] Her conclusion centered on the work of African-American portrait photographer James Van Der Zee in Harlem from 1917-1940s, whose Harlem Book of the Dead is a collection post-mortem portraits of other African Americans in Harlem over the course of his career.[23]


It is believed that the popularity of professional post-mortem photography in the Nordic countries peaked in the early 1900s and later died out around 1940, transferring mainly to amateur photography for personal use. When examining Iceland's culture surrounding death, it is concluded that the nation held death as an important and significant companion.[24] Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the country's infant mortality rate was higher than that of European countries. Consequently, death was a public topic that was considerably seen through Icelanders' religious lenses. There are many that believe Iceland's attitudes about post-mortem photography can be deduced from its earlier expressions in poetry of the above-average death rates.

In the early 1900s, it wasn't uncommon to read a local newspaper's obituary section and find detailed information regarding an individual's death, including instances where suicide occurred. This was indicative of the community's role in death, before societal norms shifted the experience of death to be much more personal and private. In 1940, there is rarely seen photographs of the deceased, their casket, or grave stone with some documentation of the funeral and wake. By 1960, there is almost no record of community-based professional post-mortem photography in Nordic society with some amateur photographs remaining for the purpose of the family of the deceased.[25]

How post-mortem photography began in Iceland remains uncertain, but these photographs can be traced to the late nineteenth century. The practice of post-mortem photography in Iceland and the Nordic countries occurred during the same times it was practiced in a variety of European countries, those of which dated these customs back centuries. As for Iceland, the role of visual art was not nearly as expansive with a select few examples dating back to medieval manuscript illustrations or memorial tablets of the 1700s. These examples were mainly restricted to experts in the field and were not consumed by the greater community.[26]

Sigfús Eymundsson has been regarded as the pioneer of professional post-mortem photography in Iceland. His work includes thousands of glass plate photographs as well as those taken with modern techniques, documenting the deceased and their funerary processions. As the practice of handling and caring for the dead transferred from the responsibility of the family to that of the hospital staff, the style of photographs changed as well. It became customary for a hospital staff member to take a photograph of a deceased child for the grieving family. Most photographs of the deceased were taken of them up close lying down on a bed or chest and mainly consisted of children, teenagers, and some elderly persons. Sigfús has multiple apprentices, but the practice was suspected to die out in these individuals as it posed an arduous task with great emotional strain.

A large regional collection of professional and private post-mortem photographs are contained in the Reykjavík Museum of Photography while others are displayed in the National Museum of Iceland. These displays are primarily composed of photographs of funerals and wakes rather than the deceased.[25]

United Kingdom

As far back as the fifteenth century, it was customary to portray the deceased through paintings and drawings. This originated in Western Europe and quickly became a widespread practice throughout the continent, including Great Britain. These portraits were mainly restricted to the upper classes, including monarchs and clergymen. Upon the emergence of photography, this traditional practice became financially accessible to a wide range of social classes.[27]

Post-mortem photography was particularly popular in Victorian Britain.[28] From 1860 to 1910, these post-mortem portraits were much like American portraits in style, focusing on the deceased either displayed as asleep or with the family; often these images were placed in family albums.[3] The study has often been mixed with American traditions, because the two are so similar.[8][9][2][10]

Audrey Linkman observed a continuation of post-mortem photography in the inter-war years, indicating the practice was not limited to the Victorian Era in Britain, though she said little about wider Europe.[8] She was a strong supporter of Barbara Norfleet's research into the ethnic minorities and middle-classes of America, insisting that post-mortem photography remained popular among these groups for far longer than the upper classes who had previously been studied.[8]

The extent of the popularity of postmortem-photography is difficult to ascertain. This is partially due to the fact that many instances are privatized within family albums as well as the role of changes in the social and cultural attitudes surrounding death. This could have resulted in the disposal or destruction of existing portraiture.[29]


In India, people believe that if their deceased loved one is burned in Varanasi at the "burning ghats”, or funeral pyres " their soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth"[30] Varanasi is the only city in India that has pyres burning 24 hours a day, seven days a week.[30] An average of 300 bodies are burned per day.[31] Death photographers come to Varanasi daily to take photos of the recently deceased for their family and loved ones earning "between 1,500 and 2,500 rupees (~$24-$40) per day".[31] The pictures serve as mementos for the family, but can also be used as proof of death.[31]

See also


  1. ^ a b Norfleet, Barbara (1993). Looking at Death. Boston, MA: David R. Godine. p. 13.
  2. ^ a b Bunge, J.A., & Mord, J. (2015). Beyond the dark veil: Post-mortem & mourning photography from the Thanatos archive. San Francisco, CA: Grand Central Press & Last Gasp.
  3. ^ a b Linkman, Audrey (2006). "Taken from Life: Post-Mortem Portraiture in Britain 1860-1910". History of Photography: An International Quarterly. 30 (4): 309–347. doi:10.1080/03087298.2006.10443484. S2CID 191646714.
  4. ^ a b Hirsche, Robert (2009). Seizing the Light: a Social History of Photography. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. pp. 34–35.
  5. ^ Bathurst, Bella (December 2, 2013). "The lady vanishes: Victorian photography's hidden mothers". The Guardian. Retrieved January 28, 2018.
  6. ^ Marien, Mary Warner (2002). Photography: A Cultural History. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
  7. ^ West, Nancy M. (1996). "Camera Fiends: Early Photography, Death, and the Supernatural". The Centennial Review. 40 (1): 170–206 – via JSTOR.
  8. ^ a b c d e Linkman, Audrey (2011). Photography and Death. Reaktion. p. 69.
  9. ^ a b c Townsend, Chris (2008). Art and Death. London: I.B. Tauris.
  10. ^ a b Summersgill, Lauren. Visible Care: Nan Goldin and Andres Serrano’s Post-mortem Photography. Doctoral thesis (Birkbeck, University of London: 2016)
  11. ^ Summersgill, Lauren. “‘Cookie in her Casket’ as a response to the Medical Death”. And Death Shall Have Dominion: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Dying, Caregivers, Death, Mourning, and the Bereaved, eds. K. Malecka and R. Gibbs. (London: Interdisciplinary Press, 2015).
  12. ^ "Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep".
  13. ^ Fussell, Sidney. "Should You Take Funeral Selfies?".
  14. ^ Service, Matson Photo (1940). "Syrian bishop's remains (funeral). Corpse seated in church". Retrieved September 27, 2020.
  15. ^ a b c d Ruby, Jay (1995). Secure the Shadow: Death Photography in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 63.
  16. ^ Edwards, Elizabeth (2005). "Post-mortem and memorial photography". In Lenman, Robin; Nicholsen, Angela (eds.). The Oxford Companion to the Photograph. ISBN 978-0-19-866271-6.
  17. ^ Summersgill, Lauren (2015). "Family Expressions of Pain in Postmortem Portraiture" (PDF). Studies in Visual Arts and Communication. 2 – via Journal On Arts.
  18. ^ a b "The Myth of the Stand Alone Corpse".
  19. ^ "Homepage - Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep". Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. Retrieved April 23, 2017.
  20. ^ a b Ruby, Jay. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America.
  21. ^ Ruby, Jay. Secure the shadow.
  22. ^ Kürti, László. (2012). 'For the last time': the Hiltman-Kinsey post-mortem photographs, 1918–1920". Visual Studies, Volume 27, 2012
  23. ^ Van Der Zee, James (1978). The Harlem Book of the Dead. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Morgan and Morgan.
  24. ^ Johanne Maria Jensen. 'Livet og d"den I fumiliealbummmet', Siden Saxo 4: 12 (1995).
  25. ^ a b Hafsteinsson, Sigurjón Baldur (2005). "History of Photography. Post-mortem and funeral photography in Iceland". History of Photography. 23: 49–54. doi:10.1080/03087298.1999.10443798.
  26. ^ Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson. 'Dauðinn í mynd lífsins: ljósmyndir af látnum,' in Eitt sinn skal hver deyja, ed. Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson, Reykjavík: Mokka Press 1996.
  27. ^ Linkman, Audrey (2006). "Taken from Life: Post-Mortem Portraiture in Britain 1860-1910". History of Photography: An International Quarterly. 30 (4): 309–347. doi:10.1080/03087298.2006.10443484. S2CID 191646714.
  28. ^ Linkman, Audrey (1993). The Victorians: Photographic Portraits. London: Tauris Parke Books.
  29. ^ Linkman, Audrey (2006). "Taken from Life: Post-Mortem Portraiture in Britain 1860-1910". History of Photography: An International Quarterly. 30 (4): 309–347. doi:10.1080/03087298.2006.10443484. S2CID 191646714.
  30. ^ a b "The Pyres of Varanasi: Breaking the Cycle of Death and Rebirth". Photography. August 7, 2014. Retrieved February 26, 2020.
  31. ^ a b c "A Death Photographer Who Shoots on the Banks of the Ganges River". January 25, 2017. Retrieved February 26, 2020.


  • Mord, Jack. (2014). Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Mourning Photography from The Thanatos Archive. Last Gasp Press.
  • Ruby, Jay. (1995). Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Boston: MIT Press.
  • Burns, Stanley B. (1990). Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America. Twelvetrees/Twin Palms Press.
  • Burns, Stanley B. and Elizabeth A. (2002). Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement in Memorial Photography American and European Traditions. Burns Archive Press.
  • Orlando, Mirko. (2010). Ripartire dagli addii: uno studio sulla fotografia post-mortem. Milano: MjM editore.
  • Kürti, László. (2012). 'For the last time': the Hiltman-Kinsey post-mortem photographs, 1918–1920". Visual Studies, Volume 27, 2012 - Issue
  • Orlando, Mirko. (2013). fotografia post mortem. Roma: Castelvecchi.
  • Vidor, Gian Marco.(2013). La photographie post-mortem dans l’Italie du XIXe et XXe siècle. Une introduction. In Anne Carol & Isabelle Renaudet 'La mort à l'oeuvre. Usages et représentations du cadavre dans l'art', Aix-en-Provence: Presses universitaires de Provence, 2013.
  • Audrey Linkman (2006) Taken from life: Post-mortem portraiture in Britain
  • History of Photography 1860–1910, 30:4, 309–347, DOI: 10.1080/03087298.2006.10443484
  • McBride Pete (2017). The Pyres of Varanasi: Breaking the Cycle of Death and Rebirth [1]
  • de Mayda Matteo (2017) A Death Photographer Who Shoots on the Banks of the Ganges River[2]

External links

  1. ^ "The Pyres of Varanasi: Breaking the Cycle of Death and Rebirth". Photography. August 7, 2014. Retrieved February 29, 2020.
  2. ^ "A Death Photographer Who Shoots on the Banks of the Ganges River". January 25, 2017. Retrieved February 29, 2020.
This page was last edited on 9 February 2022, at 18:24
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