One of my many morbid little interests in this life is how we as humans have treated death throughout our history, especially during the Victorian era between the years 1837, when Queen Victoria took the throne in England, until her death in 1901. The Victorian era held some strict practices when it came to the final chapter of life. Some historians have described the Victorian handling and obsession with mourning customs the “Cult of Death.”  When I started to learn all the crazy stuff the Victorian’s did in regards to death, I was most shocked and hypnotized by their practice of mourning photography. What’s that you ask? In a nutshell — photos of dead people.

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Father with his deceased infant.

While visiting friends in Pennsylvania one year, we spent time perusing local antique stores and every time I saw a box of old pictures, I’d search its contents, hoping some ignorant antique dealer would have slipped in a dead person photo, confusing it as someone just taking a nap.
Yeah right.
But many of the eastern states have great antique stores with older and different items than what I find in Michigan stores. As I rummaged through picture after picture of people long dead and gone, they all looked very much alive and well in the photos. I also didn’t know how to go up to a store owner and ask for these kinds of pictures.
“Um…excuse me? I’m trying to find photos of dead people. Do you have any or know who’s dealing them?”
They would either know what I was talking about if they were savvy or I would have to explain myself for the next ten minutes as to the historical significance of these cultural bygones so as not to appear too creepy, and then blame the desire to purchase such photo on an imaginary, “eccentric” friend that collects these sorts of “crazy things” and really wants one for her birthday.
I never found one during that trip or I should say, “I never found one I could afford.”  Of course anything wonderfully dark and macabre always has a healthy value in the antique world. Walking through an antique store in Gettysburg, my friend pointed up at a beautifully framed and large photo on top of a showcase and there it was — a dead person surrounded by flowers resting peacefully in their casket. Price tag? $400.
I eventually got a good price on a dead baby postmortem photo. $15 was more in my price range. It really just looks like a sleeping baby in a crib with an unhealthy skin tone. It’s now a conversation starter around the house when people come over. “Oh that old thing? That’s just a picture of a dead baby from one hundred years ago.”

VICTORIAN POSTMORTEM PHOTOGRAPHY 101
A family member dies. Now it’s your job to “artfully” pose and display them for a photo to keep and hang on your living room wall for all to admire every…single…day. Here are a few of my favorite examples of mourning photography.

I found this photo really interesting given the way they propped the little girl up on a stool and made it look as if the photo shoot took a little too long, and she just fell asleep on mom’s lap. Infant and child mortality was high during the Victorian era so it’s not uncommon to find a high amount of children and babies in postmortem photographs.


The above photo is a little different as the family is around their dead dog, and not a human. We loved our pets then just like we do now.

 

 

Dad:: “OK kids, stand around your baby brother and hold still, and Sally, try to smile just a little bit for the camera. Don’t look so disgusted.”


Knowing that this child is actually dead with that look on its face really makes this photo rather terrifying. Note the arms and legs would be posed to make the body look more “natural” during these photos. Eyes would be opened or if need be, glued open, for the sake of the photo. If the body just wouldn’t cooperate, then eyes could be painted onto the photo itself and even a rosy “glow” could be hand tinted to the cheeks on the developed photo.


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The true purpose of postmortem photography wasn’t gruesome or some type of sick fetish people had. It was a way to remember loved ones and family. To us, this practice seems creepy and maybe even a touch on the morbidly funny side, but during a time when mortality rates were high and families weren’t able to get photos taken for every occasion, a postmortem picture was sometimes the only photo ever taken of a person. Everything else about them was just a memory – except for that photo. We can’t even fathom practicing something like this today. If old great Aunt Betty dies, we don’t have to prop her up and take a photo. We’ve taken photos of her for years at every family gathering. And better yet, we don’t have to put her corpse in our living room for a “viewing” as the funeral homes take care of that job now. These photos remind us to be thankful and respect the fragility of life. We may not look Death in the face daily like our ancestors did, but he’s certainly watching and waiting for us.