In the 1800s, taking a photo of a dead body wasn’t creepy—it was comforting. In an era when photos were expensive and many people didn’t have any pictures of themselves when they were alive, post-mortem photography was a way for families to remember their deceased loved ones. This was especially true for children, whose mortality rate was much higher than it is now.
“We look at them today sort of with shock and awe, but…these photographs were taken in love,” says Elizabeth Burns, creative and operations director at the Burns Archive.
Post-mortem photography began shortly after photography’s introduction in 1839. In these early days, no one really posed the bodies or cleaned them up. A poorer family might lay a nice dress across the body of a person who died in shabbier clothes before a photographer took a picture, but there was little beautifying of the corpse. In one of the pictures in this gallery, you can even see blood coming out of the deceased person’s mouth.
Because people during this period died in their homes rather than hospitals, photographers made house calls to take these pictures. Americans kept the photos in hard cases that they might display on their mantel or keep in private. In Europe, it was more common to frame these photos and hang them on the wall. Europeans also took pictures of dead celebrities like Victor Hugo and sold them as cards.
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Towards the turn of the century, parents and photographers began to pose their deceased children for these photos by fixing their hair, dressing them up or even opening their eyes. Family members and photographers would also place certain objects in the picture to symbolize life, death and the constant march of time. A drum symbolized “the beating of the drum of death, of the end of life,” Burns says. Other symbols included an upside-down watch, an hourglass or flowers.
Post-mortem photographs became less common in the 20th century as death moved into medical facilities and photography became cheaper and more accessible. Once it became common for people of different income levels to have pictures taken during their life, there was less need to capture their image in death.