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April 23, 2018

Is Victorian Death Photography Creepy or Just Sad? Here Are 10 Sad and Strange Facts About Post-Mortem Photography

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 deceased babies.)

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 youngest.

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.

(via Ranker)


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