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Victorian Post-Mortem Photography

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Victorian Postmortem PhotoThe Victorian period of history had a few customs that today are considered, in most western cultures, to be downright creepy.  One of those practices had to do with remembering their dead through post-mortem photography, also known as memento mori or memorial portraiture.

Sometimes the photographer couldn’t arrive straight away, however.  Especially in the heat of summer, the body, which was laid out on a bed somewhere in the house (with flowers to mask the smell of decay), may have already started to decompose before the photograph could be taken.  Some of the photos I’ve found online are very disturbing.  Why  anyone would want to capture an image of a loved one who had already lost skin and eyelids is a mystery to me.  I cannot even begin to imagine the gruesome task it must have been for the photographer; rigor mortis sets in

Victorian Postmortem Photo 5

Photograph © Burns Archive, used with permission.

after 3-4 hours, and by 12 hours the body is officially a “stiff” though if it took the photographer longer than a day to arrive, the muscles had already begun to break down and soften, making the body more pliable for poses, but also more tricky to pose in a natural way; strings were used to keep hands or arms in more lively positions, or someone held the body either in-shot or hidden behind a drape near the chair.

For a 3-minute video on this topic, click here.

 

 

It is probable that both the mother and the child are deceased (her hands are in an unnatural pose).

It is probable that both the mother and the child are deceased (her hands are in an unnatural pose).

Victorian Postmortem Photo Stand

 

Update, January 2016:

There has been a lot of discussion in the comments about the photo below;  in doing the research for this article, I came across it in the context of post-mortem photography on several sites.  No matter how much I try to get it right, sometimes things do slip through; it’s one of the woes of cyberspace leisure piracy, a bit like buying a cheap knock-off watch in Asia – you might just get what you pay for, even though you’re trying to buy the real thing.   I try to give proper credit where I can locate original source material for images (and most of my articles have external links or state the source for the sake of information veracity), and so I gladly give the Burns Archive credit for two of their images used in this article.

The photo below is, in fact, not post-mortem.  The photo can be found in the Burns Archive’s Disease and Pathology collection, and their creative and operations director, Elizabeth Burns, has been kind enough to correspond with me on the matter. This woman’s story is worth telling, because it’s a thread in the tapestry of humanity, but unfortunately, not that much is known about her expect for the medical diagnosis:  She was a sufferer of Lupus with Corneal Leukoma.  The photo was taken by Alexandre Lacassagne, MD., circa 1895. It is included in their 4-volume publication Photographic History of Dermatology.

The image remains in this article as reference, because many of the comments below are related to it specifically.  Based on the updated information however, it is not related to the topic of post-mortem photography, nor should her photo be used in that context by anyone using this blog as a source.

Post-mortem; quite some time elapsed between her death and the arrival of the photographer.

Photograph © Burns Archive , used with permission.

For a further look at Victorian Photography, click here.

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About Trinity

A melancholic pragmatist with a wide streak of mischief and an active imagination that turns into novels.

51 responses »

  1. I did not know this. Interesting piece. Thanks!

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    • You’re welcome! I’d never heard of it until recently, and it was just too interesting to pass up!

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      • It was. I was familiar with the Old West practice of propping up dead bad guys but would have thought it was limited to that. Thanks again.

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      • I think that Old West practice had more to do with getting bounty paid, or proving that the dead guy was the “wanted” poster child, or about bragging rights for the sheriff, or maybe a combination of all three.
        My step-grandmother grew up in Dodge City, and I grew up in Wichita, Kansas and spent my summer days between pow wows and the Old West Wichita, “Cow Town”, so that’s my “frontier heritage”. 😉

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      • The frame they used to prop up the bodies look exactly like the frames used to keep dolls in a standing pose.

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      • Maybe that’s where doll makers got the idea! Or visa versa…

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    • The lady on the right isn’t dead at all, she’s a burn victim. The amount of life in her expression shows it–quite a lot of sadness there, and that injury is probably physically painful, too.

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      • If she were dead, the eyes would have rotted out first instead of being bright and intact, and she wouldn’t be able to sit up like that, either.

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      • Thanks for the comment – interesting thought! She may actually have been a burn victim, as you point out; but the image is post-mortem as far as I’ve been able to find out. Her left eye looks like it has begun to rot; as for her sitting up, see the prop above – they found creative solutions! If the image was taken within 24 hours of death, rigor mortis would have aided in the stiffer poses… (2016: please read the update of information in the article! She is neither a burn victim, nor post-mortem…)

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      • I am pretty sure she is dead. It looks like she is not decomposed. She is freshly dead, but probably died from smoke inhalation and got burned or she also looks like she has road burn(maybe fell out of a carriage and got drug or something).

        I found my father dead in his trailer a couple days after he died and his eyes looked pretty good to look at him. He was wide eyed and staring up at the ceiling with a peaceful expression. It was the winter and it was cold.

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      • It’s an interesting observation you make about road rash – it could be.
        I’m sorry that you found your father like that! I can’t imagine finding a relative like that, but it can happen in this day and age of people living alone, or isolated lives…

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      • Her expression is quite interesting. The left side of her face looks to have a wry ironic expression but the right side looks very sorrowful which is understandable .

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  2. Very, very interesting! This kinda stuff really fascinates me, as it does many people. Another interesting topic (especially if you find this kinda thing interesting) is incorruptible corpses. They are corpses of the dead who basically appear as they did the day they died with some being so far back as before Christ. There’s no explanation in how or why this happens, and bizarre things that go along with it such as a sweet aroma coming from the body. In the Catholic Church, many of these corpses have been named saints. Really interesting stuff!

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  3. I still think she’s alive. The expression on her face suggests chronic pain that she’s trying to endure in a ladylike fashion. Perhaps the photograph was intended as a novel surprise gift to cheer her up after the accident that injured her badly? Sometimes it’s just plain difficult to tell, though. I have one friend who consistently looks dead in pictures if he isn’t obviously doing anything at the time, and there are even a few such pictures of me that exist.

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  4. I noticed something especially odd about that picture. There actually seems to be a barnacle protruding from her decayed/burnt cheek, as well as what appears be a tiny seashell stuck to her left ear. I’m wondering if that photo is authentic at all. Is it not possible that someone simply went to town on her face with horror movie makeup and took that picture to show off their skills? The image quality of that one is a lot sharper than the others, too.

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  5. Regarding the lady on the right. I worked my way through college as a hospital orderly and have seen a number deceased people. I’ve also been on a burn unit a couple of times. If you compare the right and left eyes, they are not looking in the same direction. this would be very rare in a living person. This looks more like scaring than a new burn. Also, her hair has grown back. I would vote recently deceased, since the eyes are still very clear. Also, the mouth looks a bit like rigor mortis. Having handled some dead bodies, I would be very suspect of any, “standing” poses. Particularly given the fairly small bases of the stands. Sitting poses are a bit harder to evaluate, since the bracket could be attached to the chair.

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    • Thank you for your insight! Both the standing and sitting poses were often aided by a live family member in the same shot, or by someone hidden behind e.g. a backdrop curtain, or tied to a chair.

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    • Hi David! I’ve found out more about the woman in question; please check out the article again, for the latest information. Thinking that her mouth showed signs of rigor mortis is a logical assumption, but in her particular case it was more likely caused by the Lupus affecting her muscle control. It continues to be a topic of interest. 🙂

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  6. Anyone any idea on who this lady was or where/when the photo was taken?

    Even in death it seems like she wants to tell her story.

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  7. The ‘burned lady’ photo baffles me. It is definitely not decomposition. It looks very much like burns. But her eyes look very glossy, like those of a live person, & they don’t look ‘painted on’ either. I agree with the other poster, the resolution of the photo surpasses all the other Victorian postmortem photos I’ve seen. Not sure what to conclude.

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    • Hi Gracie
      David Shane’s experience would suggest that she is recently deceased; her eyes are definitely not painted on, but her face does show signs of rigor mortis. The higher resolution may be from a high-pixel scan of a clear photo plate; I’ve scanned and restored a lot of old photos myself, and the higher the pixel, the easier the restoration process (removing scratches, etc.) will be…
      I don’t know if we’ll ever know the exact history of this photo, but hopefully one day relatives will come across the discussion and shed some light on the photos!

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  8. The prop was not used to take post mortem pictures. It is impossible for a dead body to stand up straight, even with any help. The real post mortem photos are taken while the body is lying down (in bed, or in the arms of the mother/father or in a coffin). The prop was used to help the living to stand perfectly still:
    You should all visit:
    http://greenteablacklips.tumblr.com
    The woman with the burnt face is not dead. Her picture is actually taken from this website:
    http://burnsarchive.com/Explore/Medical/Disease/index.html

    Just saying 🙂

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    • Thank you for the links! Very interesting; I checked out Dr. Stanley Burns’s books on Amazon, but they are extortionately expensive and unfortunately I don’t have a local English library on which to call.
      Other information that I’ve come across in researching this topic wouldn’t contradict with what you’ve stated. Though the prop was used to help the living stand still for the long exposure times of the film techniques in that period, I have seen photos (too many to post in the article) in which one of the standing subjects was clearly dead; in one, a woman was standing in the prop (seen beneath her skirt) and wedged between the adult living sister and the wall, as if in intimate discussion, but the body gave telltale signs of death.
      As to the woman on the right, she’s been much-discussed in the comments here! The current consensus is that she was also recently deceased (see in particular David Shane’s comment). When I get more information on her, I’ll either update here, or write a separate blog.
      Thanks for stopping by, and adding spice to the conversation! 🙂

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  9. This is also very interesting 🙂

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  10. im now feeling slightly creeped out at 1 am

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  11. Several comments have recently been removed; while the person had a valid point, and one which I take quite seriously, on the subject of historical accuracy and research, their manner and tone was, overall, belligerent. Anonymity is no carte blanche for belligerence or presumption; they need to remember that on the other end of that comment is a human being. I appreciate sincere communication, but will not make allowances for rudeness.
    Thank you for understanding.

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    • You are very right Trinity. This is supposed to be fun and interesting. We are here to learn and discuss about these things as adults. No one is always right, but everyone has the right to talk about things and be wrong/right. It’s a matter of mutual respect.

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  12. Now, about that posing stand 🙂 I did some research and found this information:
    http://dealer042.wix.com/post-mortem-photos#!myth/cee5

    There you find a website explaining what the posing stand was used for:
    http://www.artgallery.sa.gov.au/noye/Misc/Headrest.htm

    Not that I believe every random article on the internet, but this just seems so likely to be true… 🙂

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    • Thank you for the links, Gwendolyne!
      Fascinating, as history usually is. 🙂

      I’ve always known they were used in photography for the living; my father was a photographer and such bits of trivia were always floating around our house. We also have quite a few photos of family members from that time period, all of them living.
      Having said that, I have seen photos which show signs of the stands being used as one (probably of several other simultaneous) of the supports for a person that appears to be deceased (e.g. their hands in unnatural positions, heads tilted unnaturally, etc.). If they were never used for “Momento Mori” at all, it would surprise me… I’ll see if I can track down a few of those types of photos when I have a moment, and add them to the blog (if you come across any, please do share the link!).

      Another interesting article I’ve found is about parents hidden in the photos of live children, to help hold them still. http://ridiculouslyinteresting.com/2012/01/05/hidden-mothers-in-victorian-portraits/

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    • In the video link of my article (“click here”), there are several photographs included in that clip that are obviously not Momento Mori; but at 3:32 there is a photo of two women; if both are living, why would they not both be facing the photographer? The stand is visible behind the head of the woman facing away, her head tilted downward. She may be alive, but it’s hard to tell for certain in a grainy photograph; it would be interesting to see its history.

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  13. Hey Trinity,

    I believe the photo you are talking about is an early Fashion Photograph by Clementina, Lady Hawarden in The 19th Century. She took lots of pictures like that. Really beautiful!
    So the women aren’t looking at the camera beacuase that is just the way she took pictures.
    Here’s another example: http://www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/5068

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    • Thank you. I’ve been doing some research on line about Victorian photographing techniques, and some are just downright weird… headless photos seemed to be all the rage for awhile, or making rotting corpses of one or more of the subjects. I sense another blog in the making… 🙂

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  14. Pingback: A Glimpse of Victorian Photography | History Undusted

  15. Pingback: Top 10 Creepy Victorian Post-Mortem Photos – scientificstudy.tk

  16. It’s rare to find a blogger who cares so much about tracing and quoting the sources, to make an article as much reliable as possible, so rare than even many “journalists” of famous newspapers don’t actually do that.
    For that I thank you 🙂

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    • Thank you! I try to do my best at whatever I put my hand to! Sometimes I get it wrong, but I’m always willing to go back and make it better, as the edited part of the article above reflects…

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  17. Pingback: Creepy Family Portraits With The DEAD | Piano Song

    • Not all of the photos you attribute from my article are dead – please read the description and links to the photo of the woman with Lupus & Corneal Leukoma.

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  18. “Step-grandmother” HAHA! Never heard that one before. What a dysfunctional world we live in.

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  19. The stand pictured was NEVER used for postmortem photography, that is an internet myth. We now know if they were standing, even with a stand, that they were alive. The stands were only there to help live people hold still for long shutter exposures. We could not even make a deceased person stand and look this life like today. To find out more visit this website: http://dealer042.wix.com/post-mortem-photos

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  20. Pingback: Imagination vs Knowledge | Stephanie Huesler

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