Postmortem Photography

Postmortem Photography: Strike A Pose & Stay

In 1839, with the invention of the daguerreotype, photography became more affordable to the average person than the previous method of commissioning a painting. Loved ones began photographing their deceased family members after death. They were usually dressed in their Sunday best and many times the loved ones would pose in the photo with the deceased. They were used as a memento to remember the deceased.

Mortality rates for babies and children were very high at this time and the postmortem photo may be the only photo the family had of the child. Later, with the invention of carte de visite, families were able to get multiple copies of the photo which could then be sent to relatives. The deceased were posed in natural poses that made them look more lifelike. Sometimes they were sitting on a chair or couch. Special chairs were designed by the photographers to help keep the deceased propped up.

Children would be placed in a crib or with their favorite toys. Children were usually photographed with their mother or all family members. Flowers were commonly used as a prop in these early postmortem photos. The deceased was made to look more lifelike by propping open their eyes or painting eyeballs on the photograph. Rosy cheeks were often applied to the photograph. Rarely were the deceased photographed in coffins or in a way that presumed death. It wasn’t until years later that it became more popular to photograph the deceased in or near their coffin.

No longer was there an attempt to make them look lifelike. Many times the funeral attendees were included in the portrait. In later times, a live photo of the deceased was used in a memorial portrait of the family of the deceased at a shrine heavily decorated with flowers and dedicated to the deceased.

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