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Note: The above image is probably not a post-mortem photograph.

A recent comment on a previous post had me thinking about the many different trends that have occurred in the history of people grieving loved ones. The poster in question mentioned how creepy open-casket visitations were, and it reminded me how much our perception of what is and isn’t creepy has changed throughout the centuries. It also reminded me of a memorial product that is no longer in vogue, and that would surely upset our modern sensibilities: post-mortem photography.

post-mortem photography

a practice that was popular in North America and Europe during the mid-19th and early 20th century which involved taking a portrait of a recently deceased loved one for memorial purposes

variations: postmortem photography (US)
synonyms: memorial portraiture, mourning photography, posthumous portraiture

Note: Post-mortem photography still exists today in North America and Europe, but on a much smaller scale. Certain charitable organizations, for example, photograph stillborn babies for grieving parents, free of charge.

Sources:
Burns, Stanley. “The Death & Memorial collection” The Burns Archive. Accessed 13 mar. 2015.
Hannavy, John. “Postmortem Photography.” Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography Volume I. Routledge, 24 Aug. 2007, pages 1164-1165
Rentschler, Carrie A. Second Wounds: Victims’ Rights and the Media in the U.S. Duke University Print: 25 Mar. 2011.
The Museum of Mourning Photography. Accessed 13 Mar. 2015.


photographie commémorative post mortem

pratique consistant en la prise de photos de personnes défuntes dans le but de les commémorer

synonyme: photographie post-mortem, photographie posthume,

Sources:
Mignacca. “Photographies commémoratives post mortem américaines du XIXe siècle: Mise en scène et mises en sens du cadavre.” Université du Québec à Montréal. Jun. 2014. Accessed 13 March. 2015.
Parsons, Sarah. “Le bébé décédé de Mme Hillard.” Institut de l’art Canadien. Accessed 13 Mar. 2015.
“La tombe du colonel Hamilton au Cimetière Mont-Royal – 29 juillet 2000.” Réseau canadien d’information sur le patrimoine. Musée McCord d’histoire canadienne. Accessed 13 Mar. 2015.

A little more on post-mortem photography

This whole phenomenon started with an invention, as even the death industry is subject to the whims of new technology. The daguerreotype was invented in 1839, and it made the whole process of having a portrait done much simpler and affordable. It was so popular in fact that it essentially killed portrait painting within a decade. However, it also provided those of lesser means with the chance to secure a portrait of their own. The shift into post-mortem portraiture was not a huge deviation from what was already commonplace; posthumous memorial paintings had been the norm for quite some time. As photography evolved, so did post-mortem photography.

Back in the 19th century, and throughout most of human history, infant mortality rates were depressingly high. A journal published in 1915 by the American Statistical Association stated that 27% of all deaths in the United States in 1910 were children under 5 years old, and 19% of those were children under 1 year of age. The infant mortality rate, at times, would even go up to 50% percent of the population. It must be noted that epidemics were once much more widespread. It was even common at the time not to name your child until it reached a year old. With this in mind, it should come to no surprise that the most common subjects in post-mortem photography were children. Parents wanted a reminder of their dead loved ones, but due to their young age, it is was unlikely that they would have had a photograph of their child while it was still alive. Post-mortem photography was the next best option.

There were different trends in post-mortem photography, depending on innovations in the medium. The subjects were often posed in ways that belied their deceased state. They mostly took pictures in which the subject appeared to be in a deep, peaceful sleep. At times, photographers would paint eyes either directly on the person’s eyelids, or afterwards on the developed photograph. There was also a machine that was used to prop the body up to give the impression that the person was standing. Additionally, it was not unusual for the departed to be photographed alongside other family members, including their young siblings. It was even common for the latter to be asked to lie next to or hold the body. The resulting photographs were sometimes worn as broaches during mourning and were often hung up in the parlor.

Sources:
Allard, Manon. “Deuil périnatal: ‘Je photographie les bébés pour que les parents gardent une trace’.” L’express. 15 Oct. 2014. Accessed 13 Mar. 2015.
Burns, Stanley. “Postmortem Photography and Memorializing the 19th Century.” American History TV. C-SPAN. 21 May. 2013. Radio. Accessed 13 May. 2015.
Hibbs, Henry Horace, Jr. “The Present Position of Infant Mortality: Its Recent Decline in the United States.”Publications of the American Statistical Association 14, no. 112 (1915): 813-26. Accessed January 13, 2015.
Mignacca. “Photographies commémoratives post mortem américaines du XIXe siècle: Mise en scène et mises en sens du cadavre.” Université du Québec à Montréal. Jun. 2014. Accessed 13 March. 2015.
Parsons, Sarah. “Le bébé décédé de Mme Hillard.” Institut de l’art Canadien. Accessed 13 Mar. 2015.

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