Why did people photograph the dead?

April 10, 2012

I want to approach this subject early on in my series of genealogy because of the likelihood you will uncover a few photographs of dead ancestors. I can warn you that the first time you encounter one will be a shock to your system. I feel the more you understand why people photographed the dead, the less likely you are to scream at your first encounter.

Why did people photograph the dead

We must first go back to the history of photography. The daguerreotype was developed in 1839 and offered those who couldn’t afford a painting the opportunity to own a likeness of a subject.

 Due to the high death rate, many photos of the dead happen to be children. Often the parents or siblings of the dead child will be in the photo.

During the earlier periods of photographing the dead, only the face or upper body was shown. The coffin was never seen in the photos. There are also photographs that were “doctored” to show the deceased with eyes open as though alive.

Many people find these creepy or sacrilegious. To the family of the deceased, it might be the only reminder they would ever have of a dead child.

It’s for this reason that portraits of the dead are known as “memorial portraiture” or “post-mortem photography.”

Many of these photographs feature the dead propped up in chairs. Others show the deceased as though asleep. Sometimes flowers or a cross were added to the scene.

While this type of photography is less common today in the United States and Western Europe, it’s still quite the norm with Eastern Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Christians. It’s also more common in the southern states in the U.S. than it is up north.

Later photographs included the coffin, and often funeral mourners would be present in the photograph.

I was surprised to find photographs of the dead featured in the movie “The Others” starring Nicole Kidman. For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, the housekeepers are really “ghosts” and in one scene there’s a photo of them posed after their death from tuberculosis.

I was exposed early to this type of photography at a young age, as my mother would do this before the funeral was held for a dead relative. From the age of 7, I was in charge of holding extra flash bulbs while she photographed the deceased with her old Kodak Brownie camera. She would choose a time when no one was in the viewing room and take several photos from different angles. If any family was present, she’d ask their permission out of courtesy before taking the photo.

Her reason for wanting these was the same as those who had lost children: she wanted a picture of the deceased as a memento.

Her finished product would include pictures of the deceased, the flowers, the church and also gravesite services. She would pull this project together into a scrapbook style album.

She was always cautious when mailing copies to family members. She knew who would want a picture of the deceased and who wouldn’t. It’s a subject that must be carefully thought out before sharing with others.

I became interested in post-mortem photography when I came across an infant in her casket. I was told she was the child of a great-great aunt. At first, I thought the photo was really creepy. Now I can understand how it could be a comfort to the family. This was possibly the only photograph the family ever had of their baby.

I’ve continued the memorial photography my mother got me interested in. I have pictures of both of my parents and the men I have lost to death. They bring me peace, as their photos appear to show contentment in death. However, it’s not something I’d put out for display on the living room wall.

In closing, I’d like to share this fascinating webpage with you. Visit this page at your own risk! http://cogitz.com/2009/08/28/memento-mori-victorian-death-photos/. It has some of the most beautiful (and also some of the most bizarre) post-mortem photos I’ve seen.

How do you feel about photographing the dead? I haven’t done this in the past few funerals for family members. The older I get, the more unsettling it becomes. Which is one reason some people don’t like the concept of photographing the dead? It reminds us all of our own mortality.


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