Postmortem Photography: An Appreciation

WARNING: This post contains photos of dead persons, though none are sensational or gruesome. If you are upset by such things, please skip this post.

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A few years back, I began collecting nineteenth-century photographs. In doing so, I have acquired a number of postmortem photographs. I find them moving and in many cases quite beautiful. Except for one, all of the photos in this post are from my own collection. I have included several from the twentieth century, for no better reason than that I like them.

Unfortunately, the Internet has encouraged the proliferation of a number of myths about these photographs, chiefly the notion that the Victorians posed their dead to appear alive, using stands, wires, hooks, or any ingenious and/or weird device you care to name. In fact, the stands visible in many photographs from the era were used to help living people remain still. Nor did the Victorians paint eyes on corpses, as claimed in some articles; they did, however, often touch up eyes on photos, usually because a living subject blinked or had blue eyes that did not photograph well. Most postmortem photos from the era show the subject in dignified repose, although some younger children are held by a parent and some subjects are placed in a seated position. A very few postmortem photographs depict the subject being held up by another person. The best rule of thumb is that if a person looks alive, he or she is; if a person looks awkwardly posed, he or she was awkwardly posed.

The articles that feed the public misinformation often invent elaborate explanations as to why the Victorians took photos of the dead. Some claim that photography was so expensive that families of middling or no means would splurge for a photograph only when a loved one died. In fact, photography, though like other new technologies expensive at the outset, became more and more affordable as the century went on. As one photographer commented to a Chicago newspaper in 1885, “Photographs are so cheap now that nearly everybody gets them, and it is but rarely that death overtakes a man who has not left a negative behind him.” Anyone who was too poor to have a photo of a living family member would likely be too poor to have one taken of a dead one. What is true, though, is that many postmortem photos are of young children, whose parents may not gotten around to taking a photo or never had a chance to do so while the child was alive.

Others, especially those who regard the Victorians as dreary, prudish ghouls, attribute the photos to the era’s preoccupation with death. Yet the Victorians also took photographs of pets, livestock, natural scenes, nudes, graduates, wedding parties, paintings, inanimate objects, ships, buildings, and monuments—pretty much any subject you can think of. Postmortem photos, though not rare, are a distinct minority of the many, many photographs that survive from the nineteenth century. And while the practice of postmortem photography began in the nineteenth century, it certainly did not end there. Postmortem photographs continued to be taken throughout the twentieth century and are still taken today; indeed, a volunteer organization specializes in photographing stillborn or short-lived infants for their grieving parents.

The best explanation for these photos would seem to be the simplest: the Victorians took photographs of their dead because they could. Many, of course, were content to remember their loved one as they had appeared in life, and never felt the need for that final photo. Others did, like abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lost a son, Samuel Charles Stowe, in the summer of 1849. Stowe wrote to her husband, “My Charley—my beautiful, loving, gladsome baby, so loving, so sweet, so full of life and hope and strength—now lies shrouded, pale and cold, in the room below. Never was he anything to me but a comfort. He has been my pride and joy. Many a heartache has he cured for me. Many an anxious night have I held him to my bosom and felt the sorrow and loneliness pass out of me with the touch of his little warm hands. Yet I have just seen him in his death agony, looked on his imploring face when I could not help nor soothe nor do one thing, not one, to mitigate his cruel suffering, do nothing but pray in my anguish that he might die soon.” This daguerreotype of little Charley, owned by Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, is a poignant commemoration of his short life.

Held by Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College

Stowe’s fellow abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, also suffered the death of a son, Charles Follen Garrison, in 1849. On June 20, 1849, he wrote to a friend, Elizabeth Pease, about his loss: “You have the daguerrian likenesses of Fanny [living] and Lizzie [a postmortem photo]—I wish it were in my power to send you one of Charley. But we never had his taken, though we thought of doing so a hundred times. Why I did not have one taken before his interment, I can hardly tell; perhaps because he was more altered in appearance than Lizzie. But I now lament that I did not get an artist to make an attempt.”

Garrison concluded, “In the cycle of ages, the death of one person–of millions of persons–however beloved, or whatever their characteristics, is a very insignificant event; but in its sphere and immediate relationships, it is weighty, trying, momentous.” That, I believe, is what these photographs capture.

Sources:

Annie Fields, ed., Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe

Walter M.  Merrill, ed., No Union With Slave-Holders: The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, Vol. III.

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