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Post-Mortem Portraits: The Controversial Victorian Tradition of Capturing the Deceased on Camera

Victorian death photography is a practice that was popular in the 19th century, particularly during the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901. This type of photography involved taking photographs of deceased individuals, often to remember and preserve their memory. While it may seem macabre to modern sensibilities, Victorian death photography was a common practice at the time. It can provide us with a unique insight into the culture and customs of the era.

Background

Death was an ever-present reality in the Victorian era. Infant mortality rates were high, and many died young from diseases that are now easily treatable. Death was also more visible in Victorian society, with public executions and mourning rituals being common. This cultural fascination with death extended to photography, which was a relatively new technology at the time.

In the early days of photography, taking photographs was difficult and expensive. Therefore, many families only had one or two pictures of their loved ones, usually brought on special occasions such as weddings or christenings. When someone died, it was often the case that there were no photographs of them, which made it difficult for their loved ones to remember them. Victorian death photography offered a solution to this problem.

How It Was Done

Victorian death photography was done in various ways, depending on the family’s resources and the photographer’s expertise. Sometimes, the photographer would photograph the deceased person in their bed, surrounded by flowers and other decorations. This photograph type was often called a “deathbed portrait.” In other cases, the deceased person would be posed in a more elaborate setting, such as a chair or pedestal. The aim was to make the person look as lifelike as possible to be remembered as they were in life.

One of the techniques used to make the deceased look more lifelike was to prop them up with supports such as metal rods or stands. The photographer would then hide the supports with props such as cushions or drapery. This gave the impression that the person was sitting or standing naturally, even though they were deceased.

Another technique used in Victorian death photography was to paint the person’s eyes to make them look more alive. This was done by painting a thin layer of color on the eyes, usually blue or brown, to create the illusion of pupils. The lips and cheeks would also be rouged to make them look more vibrant.

Why It Was Done

The reasons for taking Victorian death photography varied. For some families, it was a way to remember their loved ones and to keep their memory alive. Death was an ever-present reality in Victorian society, and many people died young, so having a photograph of a deceased loved one was a way to ensure that they were not forgotten.

For others, Victorian death photography was a way to deal with the grief of losing a loved one. Posing the deceased person for a photograph was a way to say goodbye and acknowledge their passing. It was also a way to create a sense of closure and to move on from the loss.

Victorian death photography was also used as a way to document the deceased person’s appearance for legal or scientific reasons. For example, a photograph could be used as evidence in a trial if a person died under suspicious circumstances. Similarly, if a person dies of a rare disease, a photograph could be used to document the symptoms and help with medical research.

Controversy

Despite its popularity at the time, Victorian death photography was not without controversy. Some people believed it was disrespectful to the deceased person to take their photograph after they died. Others thought it was a macabre and morbid practice that should be discouraged.

There were several concerns raised about the practice of Victorian death photography. One of the main concerns was that it was seen as being disrespectful to the dead. Some people believed that photographing the deceased violated their dignity and that it went against religious and cultural norms surrounding death and mourning.

There were also concerns about these photographs’ impact on the living. Some critics argued that looking at pictures of the dead could be traumatic and distressing, particularly for grieving people.
In addition to these moral and ethical concerns, there were also practical issues surrounding the practice of Victorian death photography. For example, taking these photographs was expensive and time-consuming, which meant that it was only available to the wealthier members of society.

Victorian death photography gradually fell out of favor towards the end of the 19th century as photography became more accessible and affordable. The development of faster film and the introduction of handheld cameras meant that people could take more spontaneous photographs of their loved ones rather than relying on posed portraits.

Changing attitudes towards death and mourning also contributed to the decline of Victorian death photography. As the Victorian era drew to a close, there was a growing emphasis on private mourning and a move away from public displays of grief. This shift in attitudes meant less demand for photographs of the deceased, and the practice gradually fell out of fashion.

Here Bygonely has compiled a list of creepy portraits and photographs from the Victorian era posing with the deceased bodies.

#1 Edgar Allen Poe post-mortem.

Edgar Allen Poe post-mortem.

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  1. When I was very young during family reunions or visits with the grandparents we frequently went to family cemeteries. There were many tombstones with pictures of the deceased.

  2. Not only does it have no provenance, it doesn’t even resemble him at all, and certainly his terrible suffering before he finally died did NOT cause him to look younger, change the shape of his face and head, etc. If anyone has any info about who was the initial poster of this hoax, please let me know.

#2 Mother and older sibling posing over a deceased infant.

Mother and older sibling posing over a deceased infant.

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#3 Dead Bavarian King Louis II.

Dead Bavarian King Louis II.

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#4 Mrs. Della Powell, died 1894.

Mrs. Della Powell, died 1894.

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#5 Living husband with his dead wife

Living husband with his dead wife

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#6 Deceased girl in casket.

Deceased girl in casket.

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#7 A family portrait with two deceased babies.

A family portrait with two deceased babies.

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#8 Deceased boy in coffin.

Deceased boy in coffin.

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#9 Mother and baby, probably died during childbirth

Mother and baby, probably died during childbirth

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#10 Dead man in a chair with his dogs.

Dead man in a chair with his dogs.

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  1. Honestly this is a pretty good one (well if lifelike is what the photographer was going for) if I hadn’t known the context of the picture I would just assumed a guy was lounging in a chair with his dogs on his lap.

    • That’s exactly what it is, a guy sitting in a chair with his dog. Post mortem photos were never taken like this. You can’t sit a dead body up like that because it will not stay.

  2. This is nothing more than a man sitting in a chair with his dog. Post mortem photos were never taken like this. You can’t sit a body up like that and expect it to stay.

    • Yes you can sit a body up or the body can even be standing up as if they posed themselves like this even in death there was mechanisms and gadgets built to help prop or stand up body. And not my opinion it’s a fact because of research done. Research it

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#11 Deceased boy photographed with what was likely his favorite toy, a hoop and stick.

Deceased boy photographed with what was likely his favorite toy, a hoop and stick.

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#12 The pain in these parents’ faces as they hold their dead child is obvious.

The pain in these parents' faces as they hold their dead child is obvious.

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#13 Deceased girls.

Deceased girls.

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#14 Little girl held in a standing position. The photo is a cabinet card from Villisca, Iowa taken in 1890.

Little girl held in a standing position. The photo is a cabinet card from Villisca, Iowa taken in 1890.

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#15 Four girls mourning a dead dog

Four girls mourning a dead dog

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  1. I thought that the woman seated in the chair could be deceased as it seems the woman seated closest to her has her arm around her , perhaps to hold her in place. It doesn’t look natural that she wouldn’t hold the flowers in her hand but that they were placed as part of a final detail and her very erect posture is at odds to the more relaxed postures of the other three ladies. But, they seem to have cared deeply for their dog as well.

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#16 The girl standing in the middle is the deceased.The photographer attempted to make her look more alive by drawing on her pupils.

The girl standing in the middle is the deceased.The photographer attempted to make her look more alive by drawing on her pupils.

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  1. Victorians had no device that could, unseen, pose a dead body standing up perfectly straight and looking directly at the camera. It would be difficult to do today. That girl was alive.

    • There was posing mechanisms to keep a body standing up straight as if they were alive to pose. Please do research before trying to convince ppl of your Opinion thanks

    • They did have those stands. However, we can’t know whether this person is being propped up or not because there is no stand visible in the photo. My vote would be that she is deceased because of the two dots drawn over her eyes in the image, which was likely to make them appear open. I can’t say anything for certain but if the girl were living, then it seems off thar the photographer wouldn’t enhance all their eyes, it would sure make hers stand out less.

  2. She is not deceased. This idea is going around the internet but it’s incorrect. There is no way to make a dead body stand upright in such a way. Probably this girl blinked her eyes at the wrong moment and so the photographer retouched her eyes in the darkroom.

    • They used props to hold the bodies. During this time photographs were rare. If someone died this was usually the only picture a family had of their deceased child. As photographs became more common and less expensive this practice became less common.

      • The stands referenced were not designed to bare the dead weight (no pun intended) of a deceased individual. It would be like standing your deceased cat/dog on all fours. Photographs were common as far back as the 1860’s. It’s unfortunate that more weren’t passed down through familes.

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#17 It was common for family members pose with their dead loved ones for these photographs

It was common for family members pose with their dead loved ones for these photographs

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#18 Deceased Infant.

Deceased Infant.

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#19 There is just something about her eyes in this photo.

There is just something about her eyes in this photo.

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#20 The body of William T. Anderson who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The body of William T. Anderson who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

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  1. “Bloody Bill” Anderson; who earned his nickname for a brutal attack he perpetrated which became known as the Centralia Massacre. On September 27, 1864, roughly 80 guerrillas under the command of William T. “Bloody Bill” Anderson stopped a train outside of Centralia, Missouri and asked for a volunteer from among the Union soldiers onboard. Fully expecting to be executed, Sergeant Thomas M. Goodman bravely stepped forward. Instead of killing the sergeant, the guerrillas instead executed the line of 22 unarmed Union soldiers and set fire to the train, leaving civilian passengers to deal with their mutilated bodies. The attack became known as the Centralia Massacre; a noteworthy example of the violence directed against noncombatants that took place during the Missouri-Kansas border war.
    Sergeant Goodman, the sole military survivor of the Centralia Massacre, declared that the deaths were “the most monstrous and inhuman atrocities ever perpetuated.”

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#21 Unknown Boy.

Unknown Boy.

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#22 Post-mortem photo of Gen. Turner Ashby, a confederate cavalry commander in the American Civil War.

Post-mortem photo of Gen. Turner Ashby, a confederate cavalry commander in the American Civil War.

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#23 A rather odd post-mortem pose.

A rather odd post-mortem pose.

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#24 The dead girl on the end is being propped up with a special device.

The dead girl on the end is being propped up with a special device.

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  1. It’s really great to have some of the backstories to these photos, thank you to the poster!! What’s telling here is that the living persons are ever so slightly blurred, while the deceased is absolutely clear.

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#25 Little girl sitting sideways on the chair, the device propping her up is hidden.

Little girl sitting sideways on the chair, the device propping her up is hidden.

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#26 Living man holding his dead wife.The pain in his is obvious

Living man holding his dead wife.The pain in his is obvious

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#27 Deceased girl.

Deceased girl.

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#28 With their deceased sibling.

With their deceased sibling.

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#29 In this photo the subject is more in focus than her parents, as they moved while the photograph was being taken.

In this photo the subject is more in focus than her parents, as they moved while the photograph was being taken.

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  1. You can see the pain in the fathers eyes and the grief in the mothers eyes.
    The Daughter looks beautiful, serene and calm.
    There is pain and beauty in this photo.

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#30 Sometimes, photographers would try to make it appear like the dead person was sleeping as in this photo.

Sometimes, photographers would try to make it appear like the dead person was sleeping as in this photo.

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  1. That’s true (the comment re: appearing to be asleep). But we all know if both girls were living, someone would be putting a finger in the other’s ear or tormenting them somehow, lol.

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#31 Dead girl is is lying on the floor of the parlor surrounded by family members.

Dead girl is is lying on the floor of the parlor surrounded by family members.

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  1. I somehow doubt this is a postmorten photo. a lot of people are smiling, and it looks like they just ate a big dinner. I seem to see a cat in one ladys lap. Much too informal!

  2. It is odd the respective moods of each side of the family group. I wonder what the story was behind the death of the little girl. She at least looks to be sleeping.

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#32 Deceased baby whose eyes are likely painted open.

Deceased baby whose eyes are likely painted open.

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#33 A deceased woman positioned as alive

A deceased woman positioned as alive

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#34 Cabinet card of a deceased young woman in her parlor by a Rome, NY photography studio, 1890’s.

Cabinet card of a deceased young woman in her parlor by a Rome, NY photography studio, 1890's.

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#35 The text on the frame reads, “Miss Jeanette Glackmeyer, daughter whose above photo was taken 9 days after death. Mother could not part with only daughter.”

The text on the frame reads, "Miss Jeanette Glackmeyer, daughter whose above photo was taken 9 days after death. Mother could not part with only daughter."

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#36 Deceased girl, her eyes was painted before taking photograph.

Deceased girl, her eyes was painted before taking photograph.

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#37 Cabinet card by Beniamino Facchinelli showing deceased infant, c.1890.

Cabinet card by Beniamino Facchinelli showing deceased infant, c.1890.

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#38 Deceased girl.

Deceased girl.

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#39 Sleeping Girl

Sleeping Girl

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#40 Deceased man with flowers

Deceased man with flowers

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#41 Dead bodies used to look alive by the photographs

Dead bodies used to look alive by the photographs

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  1. If you look, it appears as though a mirror was used to reflect the faces of the remaining family members instead of them all posing with the deceased girl… who may well have passed from something very contagious.

  2. A lot of times these photos were taken at the ending of their lives,say if they had an incurable disease etc,the family would get the sickly one gussied up in their finest clothing,pose them for a family picthen take them back for bed rest.

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#42 Women sitting next to dead girl. These death portrait were meant to serve as mementos of the deceased loved one.

Women sitting next to dead girl. These death portrait were meant to serve as mementos of the deceased loved one.

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#43 Dead girl with her toys.

Dead girl with her toys.

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#44 A little girl sitting on someone’s lap. The person held her in place while the photo was taken.

A little girl sitting on someone's lap. The person held her in place while the photo was taken.

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#45 Imagine how difficult it must have been to pose with a dead loved one. Here is an example of what happens when people moved.

Imagine how difficult it must have been to pose with a dead loved one. Here is an example of what happens when people moved.

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#46 This one is obvious.

This one is obvious.

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#47 Flowers and religious statues were often used as props in post-mortem photos.

Flowers and religious statues were often used as props in post-mortem photos.

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#48 Dead nun in Palermo, Sicily.

Dead nun in Palermo, Sicily.

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#49 Deceased young woman is holding a small bible or testament.

Deceased young woman is holding a small bible or testament.

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#50 The Corpse of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico

The Corpse of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico

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#51 Deathbed of Adeline Grace Clogstoun, 1872

Deathbed of Adeline Grace Clogstoun, 1872

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#52 postmortem portrait of a child, 1870

postmortem portrait of a child, 1870

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#53 We’re nearer to the other shore since the baby died, 1899.

We're nearer to the other shore since the baby died, 1899.

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#54 A young girl on her deathbed surrounded by her family, 1860

A young girl on her deathbed surrounded by her family, 1860

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#55 other with Dead Child

other with Dead Child

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#56 A sick elderly woman with a nurse.

A sick elderly woman with a nurse.

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#57 Sometimes it was impossible to make the subjects look alive as in this photo.

Sometimes it was impossible to make the subjects look alive as in this photo.

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#58 Cabinet cards were made available as photography progressed – multiple copies of the same image could be created and mailed to relatives.

Cabinet cards were made available as photography progressed – multiple copies of the same image could be created and mailed to relatives.

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#59 The dead boy was holded from behind the curtain.

The dead boy was holded from behind the curtain.

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#60 Boy posing with deceased boy wearing the same cloth.

Boy posing with deceased boy wearing the same cloth.

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#61 A mother covers her face while holding her dead baby.

A mother covers her face while holding her dead baby.

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#62 Dead men positioned as alive, photographer used his arm to support the head.

Dead men positioned as alive, photographer used his arm to support the head.

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#63 Difficult to tell which one is deceased.

Difficult to tell which one is deceased.

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#64 She almost looks alive in this photograph.

She almost looks alive in this photograph.

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