The Stamp and Coin Place Blog: connecting the past and present of stamp and coin collecting, and looking to the future.

Post-Mortem Photography

Historically you can find numerous cultural traditions that we might find odd today, such as taxidermy animal hats, professional mourners, and cheese rolling festivals (yes those were a thing!). But one tradition that sticks out as not only odd but a bit unsettling is post-mortem photography. Post-mortem photography was a type of photography that gained popularity in the Victorian era where families would photograph their loved ones after they had passed away.

In images that are both unsettling and strangely poignant, families would often pose with the dead, infants appear asleep, and consumptive young ladies elegantly recline, the disease not only taking their life but increasing their beauty.

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Until the mid-19th century, photography was considered an expensive luxury that not many could afford. As the price of photographic material came down and the number of photographers increased during the 1850s, more people paid to have them or their family photographed, often even on their deathbed. Tragic as it may seem, to low-income families, post-mortem photos were often the only family photographs that they had; as death was their last chance to scrounge together the money to afford the photos. Getting photos taken was regarded as a luxurious family occasion.

Photographers had an important job and a part of the photographer’s tasks was to prepare the body of the deceased and make it look more “lifelike,” or as if it was asleep. The BBC notes that “the long exposures when taking photographs meant that the dead were often seen more sharply than the slightly-blurred living, because of their lack of movement.”

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deceased child with painted on eyes

As technology slowly advanced there were more options for the families to choose from. Sometimes portrait cards were created to be distributed to family and friends; these portrait cards looked even creepier as eyes were painted on to the deceased. Later examples of memento mori photographs show the deceased presented in their coffin, often with a large group of funeral attendees.

Today, post-mortem photography is a nearly exterminated practice and peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century. Although it is still present in some parts of Eastern Europe. This type of photography is nowadays regularly practiced in police and practice of pathology. The advent of snapshots allowed most families to have photographs taken in life.

 

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This post is apart of our 13 days of Halloween series. Checkout our other spooky posts:

  1. Washington Ghost Stories
  2. Out of Place Artifacts
  3. Henry Rathbone
  4. Charon and the Journey to Hades
  5. Post-Mortem Photography
  6. All Hallows Eve Divination Games
  7. Saved By The Bell and other Idioms
  8. Halloween Coins
  9. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. Coins Connecting You to the Spirit World
  11. Ancient Egyptian Alien Coins
  12. Superstitions Around the World
  13. A Brief History of Halloween

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