On Post-Mortem Photography: A Brief History of a Long Gone Social Practice

Post-Mortem Photography

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One of the most solid conclusions we can arrive at when talking about this particular theme in the history of photography, is that humanity had a different relationship with death; and post-mortem photography offers a nostalgic window towards it. Today, I’ll talk a bit about this fascinating social visual practice that is now long gone.

Post-mortem Photography Was a Popular Thing

Back in the days in which accessing a visual representation of the self was both scarce and luxurious, people often had just one opportunity of getting a decent portrait of family and loved ones after they were deceased. Basically, people only realized the importance of having a visual memento of a person after they had died, hence the popularity of these now-gloomy portraits.

Personally speaking, after watching tons of these photographs, I’d come to the conclusion that people were more comfortable with the idea of death than nowadays. Today, death is something that rather remains unspoken, and is often softened with euphemisms like “passing away” or referring to it as the “afterlife”. Anyhow, let”s get back to the photography-related stuff.

Even before the early days of photography, post-mortem portraiture was quite a popular social practice; and the arrival of the daguerreotype expanded the access to it. But one of the main differences between the visual results among these two media, was the thing about reality. Paintings of the deceased often showed people in an idealized way, softening out the idea that we are witnessing the beautiful portrait of a corpse. Subtle symbols like flowers surrounding the person are well-agreed on being clear statements that the painter was representing a dead person rather than a living one. And photography changed that forever.

A Brief Definition of Post-mortem Photography

This was the visual and social practice of creating portraits of recently deceased persons via photography; requiring photographers to develop a particular array of creative abilities that allowed them to pose stiff corpses into flattering gestures. And it is part of a broader branch of objects popularly known in “material culture studies” as memento mori. Morphologically, they all share an aesthetic which is easily pin-pointed out as Victorian or pictorial, and was very popular back in the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.

Same which was a rather popular practice in the Western civilizations, and is still quite recurrent in some Eastern cultures like the Torajan, who live with dead bodies for weeks, months and even years. Small parenthesis about this practice, in their beliefs framework, a person isn’t fully dead until water buffalo get sacrificed at their funeral, the same act which serves as a vehicle for their afterlife. This isn’t cheap for families, so they spend time with them until the proper arrangements can be made. In the meantime, people have a normal quotidian life with dead loved ones in their homes.

Back to America and Europe, post-mortem photography became popular because, in most cases, this was the only visual remembrance people were capable of getting of the deceased loved ones. In the Latin American culture, from which I am, the first days of November are reserved for people to pay some tribute to the memory of the people that are now absent in this world. If you want to get a better grasp of how important photography is for establishing the presence of the absent, watch Disney’s film “Coco“, and focus on how important a single photograph is for the long lasting memory of dead people among the living world.

How was This Now-odd Genre Became a Thing?

Before chemistry made photography possible as a durable object, portraiture was done though drawing, engraving, painting and sculpture. None of them were cheap nor accessible to the broader public, therefore having a portrait was quite a luxury that very few were able to afford during the 18th and 19th centuries. After the magnificent invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, portraiture was finally more accessible, but was still luxurious in broad socioeconomic terms; therefore people rarely paid for photographs of themselves or close relatives, and family portraits were also scarce.

During those days, in which health was such a fragile thing, death was seen as a part of ordinary life; and it was very much common for death to happen within the households rather than clinics or hospitals. Therefore, images of relatives and loved ones were still scarce, but at the adveniment of death, people clearly understood that having a posing photograph of the dead person was way better than not having any visual memento of them at all.

The Symbolic Importance of These Photographs for Families

Every one of these photographs had a deep symbolic value to at least one person, a mourning living one that wanted to keep a tangible memory of the recently deceased. All these photographs were commissioned by mourning relatives and families; and in a way, they helped people process their grief by allowing them to experience the presence of the absent in an almost immortal way. These photographs happened to be vivid remembrances of the dead, and they quickly became precious and invaluable possessions for every family who could afford to hire a photographer for such a complex task.

Thanks to the nature of the photographic reproductions common at the time, small prints of the deceased were often carried in lockets so the owners could keep them close every day, triggering their presence in a rather quotidian and more human way. And perhaps, it was due to that particular material flexibility that photography became known and celebrated for its capability of providing comfort and even conjuring up the dead. For that matter, images became so important in the nineteenth century that daguerreotypists were upon the first contacts mourning families made after death occurred.

Even when being slow for our contemporary cameras, daguerreotypes, calotypes, heliographs and so on, were way faster than paintings; hence the big revolution in the post-mortem portraiture practice that we now study with sentiment and nostalgia. But even then, photographs were very slow in fact. In regular living portraits, people had to make tremendous efforts to keep themselves mighty still in front of the cameras; hence the absence of smiles in many portraits of the time, keeping a smile for more than a minute is quite a challenge, and results in very creepy images too. Oddly enough, this wasn’t a problem with post-mortem portraits due to logical reasons, of course. Although, dead people were often photographed while surrounded by living family and friends, and they had to remain absolutely still for the photographs.

Photographers were not only skilled in maneuvering stiff corpses into seamlessly natural positions of the body, but also into arranging the scene that everything looked just like a regular portrait or family photograph. Sometimes, the subtle trepidations on participants from the scene is the key highlight for spotting if a photograph has a dead person within. Whenever you are watching a photograph of the nineteenth century, and even the early days of the twentieth century in some places, where everybody looks subtly blurred by motion; look out for a perfectly still individual, and you might get an interesting surprise.

So, How Did They Manage to Maneuver the Stiff Bodies?

I haven’t found evidence yet about the differentiated fees between photographing a living person and a corpse, but since painters were known for charging even double the price for painting deceased ones, it is quite easy to conclude that in photography things were handled in the same way. And this has nothing to do with taking advantage of the grief and the pain, or at least I want to believe that. The differentiated fee had more to do with all the extra work that had to be done to place the bodies in flattering positions, otherwise it would be like calling a crime scene photographer to some extent. People needed something romantic that allowed them to remember their loved ones in a beautiful way, especially when these were the only photographs many people had of their loved ones. So yeah, it is not the same to take a portrait of a living and well-collaborative person, that working with a dead body.

Maneuvering the corpses is perhaps one of the most curious things I’ve stumbled with regarding this practice. Photographers were not just visual creators, but skilled corpses manipulators. When someone passed away, it was extremely likely that the family had never photographed him or she, so they called a photographer (sometimes when the sick relatives were in agony or in their last moments of life) to take the only photograph that would ever be taken of the soon-to-be deceased person. And speaking of speed, transportation was ages far from being as fast and accessible as it is today. These are simple things that we all now take for granted, and of course, photographers sometimes had to travel for days to reach their destinations. In the meantime, rigor mortis had taken place, making the body harder to manipulate as time went by. Post-mortem portrait photographers had to deal with rigid bodies in several ways, and there are several myths and beliefs around how they managed to do that. Some of these myths include photographers using highly archaic methods like belts, pulleys, levers and even hidden people for pulling their craft, but this meticulous article proves that these might not be as real as some might think.

You can see in many of the post-mortem photographs related articles how these methods were used; and in some cases there are reckonings of photographers managing the maneuvering task through clothes and furniture, making garments less evident and almost invisible. Some families preferred having their deceased loved ones photographed as if they were asleep; others wanted a more “living” feel, and they achieved this feeling by using glass eyes and other darkroom related tricks. And when it came to sleeping people, children were the most popular to be depicted like that. Sadly enough, children suffered a higher rate of mortality than adults in those years, and were portrayed in a very angelical sort of way, often placed or positioned inside little cribs with flowers and toys.

Back to Latin America, these specific subjects were called “Little Angels” due to the christian belief that unbaptized children that perish, are sent to an ambivalent and liminal place, dwelling for eternity between heaven and earth. Many children were baptized before dying, and just like photographers, priests were also “on speed dial” when these sad moments happened. And although that happened, people also believed (and still do) that after that religious rite occurred, the dead children were immediately sent to heaven, hence the angelical symbolic reference to them. Since this photographic style was so popular during that time, each photographer also developed their own styles; and some preferred a different approach, like, for example, having the mother tenderly holding her deceased baby in a sleep-like position, or surrounded by other members of the family as well.

About the style

Some images were very traditional, with an obvious Victorian and ethereal look, and today some of them may appear creepy to some viewers or audiences. In fact, that morbidity might be the origin of so many myths surrounding this fascinating cultural practice. Same which, in my personal opinion, is the only genre that has disappeared from all the history of photography.

Death within domestic spaces was common, but with the evolution of medicine, we as humans built a great distance between life and death and post-mortem photography became rare and unpopular. This practice seems totally distant and odd now that we constantly take pictures of almost everything. This article wasn’t meant to produce morbid sentiments nor to evoke the practice back again. It was rather written to offer a reason to meditate about the currently accelerated practices surrounding our visual culture, especially after the easiness of representation social media allows us to have. Some of the photographs from the nineteenth century were the only vivid picture families had of their loved ones. Memories fade with time, and for 200 years photography has been the most effective way to keep memories alive.

Last but not Least

If you want to see some of these photographs, I recommend you this gallery (although I’m very sure that the photograph of Lewis Carrol and some others slipped the curatorial criteria of it). Also, you can visit the Thanatos Archive for more information about this long-gone social practice, and this enlightening document on the social construction of the American Daguerreotype portrait.