Photography has been a way for people to remember people, places, and events. We commemorate and document life through photographs, and have been doing so since the 19th century. But photography has also been used to document death. In this episode we are discussing Victorian postmortem photography. This has received a lot of interest on the internet lately as Victorian memento mori photographs have become rather popular on certain internet sites. And although many of the pictures on those sites are in fact postmortem photographs, many are not. They are either completely fake, or they are pictures of living people being passed off as postmortem photos.
We invite you to listen to our podcast, read the transcript below or watch the YouTube video at the bottom of this post.
Other Episodes of Interest:
- The Rural Cemetery Movement
- Tuberculean Chic: How the White Plaque Shaped Beauty Standards in the 18th and 19th Centuries
- Puritan Sex: The Surprising Sexual Practices of American Puritans
Transcript of Photos of the Dead: Victorian Postmortem Photography and the Case of the Standing Corpse
Written and researched by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate
Produced and recorded by Elizabeth Garner Masarik, MA, PhD Candidate and Marissa Rhodes, MLS, PhD Candidate
Elizabeth: Photography has been a way for people to remember people, places, and events. We commemorate and document life through photographs, and have been doing so since the 19th century. But photography has also been used to document death as well.
Marissa: Today we are going to be discussing Victorian postmortem photography. This has received a lot of interest on the internet lately as Victorian memento mori photographs have become rather popular on certain internet sites. And although many of the pictures on those sites are in fact postmortem photographs, many are not. They are either completely fake, or they are pictures of living people being passed off as postmortem photos.
I’m Elizabeth Garner Masarik
And I’m Marissa Rhodes
Elizabeth: And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
Marissa: There are many reasons to take postmortem photos and we will discuss a few here. One reason, and the one we will be focusing on the most today, is a simple human instinct to possess something of a loved one who has passed away. A way to mitigate death so to speak. Now, to some modern-day people it may seem strange to take pictures of people once they have passed away. And because there is a market for Victorian era postmortem photography, we tend to think that the Victorians were the only ones who took these kinds of photos. And so people think oh those weird Victorians. They were so melodramatic. (and in some way, yes they were, but we all have our quirks!)
Elizabeth: Sometimes you’ll hear people say things like yeah, but Victorians were just so much more used to death so these pictures were weird to them at all! And I say, bullshit. Victorians mourned just as much as we mourn today. Just because death was more common didn’t mean that the pain and anguish that they experienced wasn’t just as acute as it is today. So it might surprise some people to know that people still take postmortem pictures of their loved ones. They are taken and kept in family photo albums and as personal keepsakes. The Victorians didn’t display their postmortem photographs on their mantle, just as people today don’t display theirs today. The only reason these Victorian photos proliferate is because there is a market for them from collectors. But when they were taken, they were kept as personal keepsakes and weren’t openly displayed. Instead they would be stored in a locket, perhaps with a lock of the person’s hair. Or framed but kept somewhere private, like a bedroom or a family room. Or they might be, small so as to keep in one’s pocket.
Marissa: Yes, there may have been a stronger impulse to keep death in mind. To retain the presence of a loved one by say, having a piece of jewelry like a watch chain or a bracelet, made out of your deceased loved ones’ hair. So yes, in this way Victorians tended to keep reminders of death about their person more so than we do today. Today, the tendency is very much to separate ourselves from death. To keep it out of mind. Most people have not seen a dead body, let alone touch one. And yet, and yet… flip on any television channel, even the non-cable ones and I guarantee you within a few clicks you’ll find a “true crime” show complete with a realistic looking dead body. So, are we really that different? We push death away and yet we pine after it in the media we consume.
Elizabeth: Frankly, I’ll take sweet sentimentality any day.
So even though it may seem strange to some, to others, even today, it’s not strange at all. People still take pictures of their dead loved ones. My family is one. I’ve read in various places that this is a southern thing but I’m not too sure of that. Just ask any funeral director! We’ll get into that more in a minute.
Marissa: Another reason to take postmortem pictures is to prove that yes in fact, a person is dead. A good example of this can be taken from our previous episode about guerrilla warfare in the Civil War. We have an image of Bloody Bill Anderson on that blog post and he’s obviously dead. It was a way for authorities to show that see, we got him! They did the same recently for Osama bin Laden, although they did not release that picture to the general public, so we just have to trust them on that one. But the Bush administration did release photos and videos of Saddam Hussein’s hanging, as well as postmortem pictures of his sons, Uday and Qusay, after they were killed by Delta Force. So again, we see the wild wild west pictures of dead criminals, like Billy the Kid and Bloody Bill Anderson, but the practices isn’t really all that foreign.
Elizabeth: A third reason for postmortem pictures is part of the death record at the coroner or medical examiners office. Now this is going to vary a bit county-by-county and state-by-state. But generally, if someone dies without an admittance to a hospital within 24 hours, an autopsy is performed on that person. Since that is done through the state or county level, they will take photos of the deceased as part of that medical journal. So not everyone will have these photos taken, but a lot will.
Marissa: So back to our discussion of Victorian postmortem photographs. These are also referred to as momento mori.
Memento mori dates back to classical times. It translates from Latin “remember that you have to die.” So it’s a reflection on your mortality. It can be depicted in art, literature, whatever, and varied from the classical period to the modern era. In the 19th century it took on a form of sentimentality. People could commission trinkets made from the hair of their loved ones, or they might wear carry a locket with the photo of a deceased loved one with them.
Elizabeth: Now we mentioned earlier that Victorians felt death as we feel death today. Don’t forget that the Victorians weren’t living that long ago! So I think of it as, my grandmother, who I was very very close to, died at the age of 96. Her mother was a Victorian. So, that means that my parents knew people intimately who grew up during the Victorian era. So just remember that- the 19th century wasn’t that long ago.
Marissa: But of course, there were aspects that were different. One thing that Victorians prized was something called The good death. And we’ve alluded to this in a few of our other episodes, particularly our episode on the rural cemetery movement. Essentially the good death was a peaceful, natural death at home. One was surrounded by family members and loved ones. It wasn’t violent, there was no overt suffering, just a gentle slipping away from this world to the afterlife.
Elizabeth: Much of the ideology surrounding how this perfect death would play out, had to do with the disease Tuberculosis. We also discussed this in detail in our Tuberlean Chic episode. We’ll link to it in the show notes or just search our podcast feed.
Now Tuberculosis is actually a horrendous way to die, because the bacteria can actually create pockets or cavities in the lungs which can become infected with other bacteria that forms pockets of pus and these damaged areas can cause bleeding. Basically it can cause holes in the lungs and airways which, understandably, makes it very hard to breath. So before antibiotics, people with TB essentially just wasted away, becoming pale and thin before finally dying of what was then known as consumption. The disease profoundly shaped beauty standards in the 19th century because effects of the disease actually highlighted aspects that people already found beautiful, such as being thin, having very pale skin, or having rosy lips and cheeks due to a low-grade fever.
Marissa: But this wasting away was what exemplified the good death. The Good Death was not a public event, it was an extremely private one, restricted to the closest circles of the dying person. And not all good deaths were the result of TB. That disease just happened to be the pinnacle of the good death.
There are many literary depictions of the good death, as well as many paintings. But since this is a podcast, we’ll read you one from the 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe:
Elizabeth: The child lay panting on her pillows, as one exhausted,–the large clear eyes rolled up and fixed. Ah, what said those eyes, that spoke so much of heaven? Earth was past, and earthly pain; but so solemn, so mysterious, was the triumphant brightness of that face, that it checked even the sobs of sorrow. They pressed around her, in breathless silence.
“Eva,” said St. Clare, gently.
She did not hear.
“O, Eva, tell us what you see? What is it?” said her father.
A bright, a glorious smile passed over her face, and she said, brokenly,–“O, love,–joy,–peace!” gave one sigh, and passed from death unto life!
“Farewell, beloved child! the bright, eternal doors have closed after thee; we shall see thy sweet face no more. O, woe for them who watched thy entrance into heaven, when they shall wake and find only the cold gray sky of daily life, and thou gone forever!”
Marissa: Ok so a bit melodramatic, but also you see the peace in it. Eva was sick, but in that deathbed moment she turns her eyes to heaven and peace is upon her. And she slips away, surrounded by loved ones.
There are very few photos of deathbed scenes. These were mostly captured in paintings and illustrations.
Elizabeth: One very famous image of the deathbed scene is a 1858 staged picture of a girl near death, in the presence of her family, called Fading Away. It was created by English photographer Henry Peach Robinson. It was published in America as a woodcut reproduction the following year. We’ll post this picture on the blog but for any of you familiar with The Good Death, this is probably the picture you’ve seen. What’s interesting however, is that the photographer actually got a lot of flack in England when he created this photograph because people felt it was vile, a gross intrusion upon a private scene. This was supposed to be an intimate, familial moment- not one visible for all the world!
Marissa: But many Victorian postmortem photos still fall within that framework because in those photos, the person is normally depicted in a state of sleep, looking perfectly restful, like they might wake up at any moment.
Elizabeth: Postmortem photography, or taking photographs of people after death became more popular as the medium of photography grew and became cheaper and easier to produce. These photographs were performed as one of the services that professional portrait photographers would do. Like portraiture, it was at first accomplished almost exclusively by the daguerreotype process.
Marissa: The daguerreotype was a small, highly detailed picture on polished silver. When it was first invented and introduced as a consumer good, it was an expensive luxury item that only the wealthy could afford. This quickly changed however throughout the 1840s as the number of photographers increased and the cost of daguerreotypes decreased. Cheaper modes of photography were introduced in the 1850s as well as other forms of portraiture like the ambrotype which was on glass and the tintype which was printed on thin, cheap metal. Photographs also started being printed on paper in the 1850s as well. By the 1860s, most everybody was able to afford portrait photography.
Elizabeth: So this gets us into some of the myths surrounding Victorian postmortem photography. Because lemme tell ya, there are some whoppers about these photos out there on the web. I dunno, I’m a goth, so I’ve been seeing this stuff on the interwebz for a while. But a quick google search of Victorian mourning photos or something like that will easily get you into the rabbit hole.
But here we are, professors buzzkill, ready to save the day.
So let’s go down the list, shall we?
Marissa: First, the standing corpse photo. This is a staple of post-mortem hoax sites. There will be a picture of say four children, and one looks, well, dead. But she’s standing up. So someone will say, see! You can see the stand at her feet! She’s dead but the family had to get a photo of her. Sorry, wrong. That picture is just of a little kid acting like a little kid. I guarantee if you go through my iPhone right now you’ll find some pics of my son with his eyes rolled back looking like all he wants is brains. The stand that is visible in the background is literally there to keep a squirmy kid still, and it obviously didn’t work because little missy’s just effed up the family portrait.
Elizabeth: Photography in its early stages was a tedious and exact art. The camera shutter had to stay open for a veeerrrryyy long time, up to 30 minutes sometimes, to get a clear shot. So this is why you see a lot of blurry old timey photos. If people moved just in the slightest, the portrait was ruined. And sometimes the photographer wouldn’t even know the portrait was ruined until the film was developed.
Marissa: So many photographers held people in place with a variety of stands, braces, and clamps. There is plenty of photographic evidence of these things being used on very alive people. They were simply to help people stay in the positions needed for a very long time.
Elizabeth: That’s also why no one is smiling in those photographs. You can’t smile that long. Go on, try to hold a smile, the same smile, for the next 30 minutes. Isn’t going to happen.
And this why a lot of people look dead. It’s because they are bored to death just sitting there, staring at a box. For, like, forever. Forced to be perfectly still, so that translates onto film as a stiff, lifeless body.
Marissa: But no! Say the internet hoaxers. Here’s another one. This one is of two teenage girls. One is sitting, one is standing. The standing girl looks very pretty, but wait. What’s going on with her hands? Look at her hands!?!?! They are is a very weird, unnatural position. And… and… look closely… they are darker than the rest of her skin. This proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that she’d dead. And then they go into a long discussion about how when a body is deceased, gravity forces the blood to pool in the lowest points. Yadda yadda yadda. It all sounds fine and good and starts to makes sense… but…. It’s not true.
Elizabeth: The girl in the picture is very much alive. Sorry, no dead body looks that fresh. Her hands are normal, yeah, maybe not in the most natural of positions, but normal. The discoloration that you squinted so hard to see? Lighting. Only lighting. Remember this is a black and white photo.
But wait, there’s a visible brace in this one too. See, right there by her feet?!? That proves she’s dead right? Nope. Sorry. It just proves that she had to stand for a super long time to get this photo and the stand is helping her stay still. And she’s really pretty, I doubt she’d appreciate people claiming she’s dead in this photo.
Marissa: But here’s the nuts and bolts behind why the myth of the standing Victorian corpse photo isn’t plausible.
First, a dead body is heavy and gravity is literally working against it to stay up. Think about this. If there are no muscles firing in a body- think about the muscles of the face, particularly jaw muscles. When we are alive, we are firing our facial muscles constantly in order to keep our jaw shut. If we weren’t, we would literally be walking around with our mouths gaping open.
Elizabeth: When I worked at the morgue that was always the thing that was most, I don’t know, disturbing, about decedents. Even laying flat in a prone position, the jaw does something… weird… when the body is deceased. It just doesn’t sit, or “hang” naturally. The lips are parted in a way that isn’t visually appealing. Like, when you read something that says, her lips were parted, you think, ooh, sexy. But no, this is like, disturbingly parted. And the teeth are visible- it’s hard to describe. It’s like the smell. Once you’ve been around it a lot, you just know what it is.
Marissa: Okay, so in these picture. If the standing person were deceased, there would have to be something around the person’s face, holding the jaw up. Otherwise they would be standing there with their jaw gaping open.
Elizabeth: But your haoxer will say, but what about rigor mortis? Huh? That’s what’s keeping this person upright.
Fair enough. Here are the deets on rigor.
Marissa: Rigor Mortis sets in two to six hours after death and take about 6 to 12 hours to spread throughout the whole body. From there it can last another 8 to 18 hours. All of this really depends on the person’s physiology, their age, sex, health, etc.
Elizabeth: Now, to double-check myself, because it’s been awhile since I worked in the morgue I wanted to make sure I had my timing right. I found some sources that said rigor could last 1 to 4 days. I don’t know about that, I guess under certain circumstances that might be true. But I’m here to say that I have personally worked with hundreds of decedents and I never had anyone in rigor for that long.
Once a body is in full rigor mortis they are really stuck. One of my jobs at the morgue was to prep decedents for autopsy. So that means I had to undress them. If a body was in full rigor, I would have to “break” the rigor to move arms, legs or whatever to get them undressed. I didn’t actually “break” their bones or anything, but it took some muscle on my part to move them. Massaging would help but it also required some manual force. And I don’t want to be crass here, this was always done with the utmost respect, I don’t want anybody freaking out about a loved one having an autopsy or anything.
Marissa: We are telling you this to show that in rigor, the muscles are hard, and stuck. Which theoretically could make the standing corpse photo work, but in reality, most people don’t die with their arms and legs in the perfect position to look “normal” while standing. You may have an arm sticking straight out, or your knees might be slightly bent, etc.
And not to mention, those little stands that you sometimes see peaking out of these photos are waaaay too small to hold up a completely dead-weight 100 or more pound person.
Elizabeth: Now sometimes decedents were photographed standing up, but that was done almost exclusively by law enforcement. In those cases, a body would be strapped into a special chair, or against a cooling board. This type of photograph would be taken by forensic photographers or perhaps newspaper photographers in later years.
Marissa: And in case you’re still not convinced, scholars have scoured photographer’s notes and papers from the 19th century on how they conducted their photography businesses. Here is Jay Ruby, an expert on Victorian postmortem photography. He found that none of his sources included posing the dead to appear standing or in a “just hanging out” kind of pose. Instead he found that a picture in the death-bed was popular. If the family was included, sometimes photographers created a “good death” scene, with the family displaying subtle grief.
Elizabeth: One photographer wrote in 1873,
“When I began to take pictures, twenty or thirty years ago, I had to make pictures of the dead. We had to go out then more than we do now, and this is a matter that is not easy to manage; but if you work carefully over the various difficulties you will learn very soon how to take pictures of dead bodies, arranging them just as you please … The way I did was just to have them dressed and laid on the sofa. Just lay them down as if they were in a sleep.”
Ruby found no examples or evidence of photographers posing or moving dead body to look alive.
Marissa: Now there are a few instances where bodies are made to look alive. But these are rare, and not very convincing. There are a few instances of eyes being painted either on the body itself, or on the photograph after development. But these are very few and far between, and aren’t very convincing. In fact, these may have more to do with certain ethnic cultural practices, than an example of Victorian culture as a whole.
Elizabeth: A couple of other myths to address.
The Invisible or Hidden Mother. These are pictures of children, live children, who are sitting on what looks to be a person covered with a sheet. And that is exactly what these pictures are. Remember how long the shutter speed is? And if you’ve ever been around a kid, you’ll know that they don’t sit still. So one way to get a picture of your little crumb snatcher was to sit down, get covered with a sheet and “act” like a chair, and then have your little darling sit in your lap while the picture was taken. So the presumably mom, could make the kid feel safe while also holding them, or bracing them. These are funny and some are done better than others. Some, the mom is literally holding the kid’s head on either side and facing him forward. I’ve seen another one where a child is standing on a pedestal and some one is literally standing behind a curtain, holding the kid’s head straight.
Marissa: Sometimes these pictures circulate and people say, ohh, see, that mom is actually dead and this picture is showing that that kid’s mom is dead. Or that these pictures are memento mori because they are showing that death can come any minute, that’s why the mom (or dad- I guess you can’t really tell) is covered up. It’s symbolism. Creepy. Nope. It was just a cheap way to get squirmy kids to sit for a photograph and some photographers pulled it off better than others.
Elizabeth: Another myth floating around is that photography was so expensive that people would only photograph their relatives after they were dead. This wasn’t the case. As mentioned previously, photography became less and less expensive as the century wore on. So in some instances, this may have been true early in the century, it definitely wasn’t so later in the century. Most people probably had a picture of their loved one living and dead by the 1870s or later.
Marissa: Most Victorian postmortem photography displays the decedent as sleeping, or lying restfully. Some are on a couch or a bed. Often times children are in a small coffin. Many are surrounded by flowers.
Remember, these were taken as a way to hold on to the memory of someone special who had died. No matter how much creepiness we ascribe to them, these pictures are full of love and sentimental sadness.
Elizabeth: A quick ebay search will show you that there is a market for these photos. And apparently no shortage of them for sale. Many of the photos aren’t really postmortem. I saw one on ebay of a little girl playing with a doll, obviously sitting up and playing, but her eyes were shut therefore the seller was calling her dead. But there are also a lot of real ones on ebay too.
The collecting of these types of photos has exploded since the advent of the internet. The Thanatos Archive, which houses about 2000 of these pictures will let you look at them for a subscription fee. The Burns Archive is another private collection houses some postmortem photography as well.
Marissa: So yes, Victorian postmortem photography was a very real and special thing. And there are plenty of legitimate and sentimental postmortem photographs to be found. We just want to remind you that the Victorians weren’t that different from us really.
Elizabeth: So thanks for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Subscribing is free and it will mean that you will never miss an episode. Leave us a review while you’re at it.
Show Notes and Further Reading:
Jay Ruby. “Post-Mortem Portraiture in America.” History of Photography. Vol 8, no 3, 1984.