New-York Historical Society

Postmortem photography at the turn of the 20th century

Amanda Wheeler and Daughter (infant postmortem), n.d. PR012-2-286; Cased Photograph File, Daguerreotype

By Joe Festa, Print Room Reference Assistant

Today, photographs of dead humans are seen as taboo, and talk of death is almost always avoided at all costs. But this hasn’t always been the case. During the 19th- and early 20th-centuries, capturing the image of a corpse was commonplace, and was viewed as a normal, culturally acceptable practice.

Previously, individuals were celebrated and remembered through the visual medium of painting, but it was costly and thus limited to the wealthy upper class. But with the advent of photographic processes in the 1840s, portraiture became available to the masses at a low cost, and pictures quickly began to flood mainstream America. Postmortem photography followed on the heels of this influx, providing society with a new way to remember someone whose life ended too soon.

Postmortem photographs were often the only images ever to be made of an individual. They were largely of infants and children, though adults and the elderly are represented as well. As times andtastes progressed, so did the aesthetics of the genre. Compositions began as

George Dieter Jr. (infant postmortem), n.d. PR012-2-478; Cased Photograph File, Daguerreotype

stark settings with particular emphasis on the face, and gradually started to feature the body on its bed or in its casket surrounded by lush floral arrangements, a shift that brought emphasis from the individual to the larger act of funerary rituals and modern developments in that field.

The simplicity of these photographs makes for powerful imagery. While some subjects are posed as if they’re awake, others are seen resting peacefully. Whichever the case may be, both formats attempt to soften death, providing survivors with a record for posterity and a long-lasting memory of the deceased.

It’s no secret that the quality of life during the early 19th-century was severely affected by a wide range of diseases, poor sanitation and living conditions, and limited medical expertise; -as a result, the rate of infant mortality was high, life expectancy was low, and death was often drawn out and painful.

Teresina Caravadossi (postmortem), 1917 PR012; de Groot Family Photograph Collection

Sharp changes took place as the 20th century brought improved standards of medical intervention, sanitation, and shelter. Likewise, photographic technologies advanced exponentially, and photography became a more integrated tool for the documentation of everyday lives. Ultimately, postmortem photography fell out of vogue in the mid-20th century, due in part to the increasing standards of living that came along with modern technology.

The way death is viewed and approached has evolved significantly since the 18th- and 19th-centuries. Creating images of the deceased might seem like an eerie or disturbing taboo to contemporary culture, but postmortem photographs are artifacts that document an unspoken part of our social history, and can be seen as icons or reminders of love and loss.

Unidentified postmortem photograph, n.d. PR279; Marilynn Gelfman Karp Collection of Ephemera

3 Comments to Postmortem photography at the turn of the 20th century

  1. Julia's Gravatar Julia
    September 7, 2012 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    These photographs are beautiful and touching. What a wonderful way for the relatives of the deceased to grieve their loved ones. Unfortunately infant deaths still occur in this day and age. Many families still find immense comfort in photographing their babies who die before, during, or shortly after childbirth. This isn’t a lost art, but it is kept private by many families. Organizations like Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep specialize in this type of photography as a free service for families who have lost a baby.

  2. September 15, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I have been fascinated for quite some time with post mortem photography from the Victorian era. My heart always goes out to the mothers that cradled their babies when they had to have these photos taken as a lasting memory of their lost loved ones. It had to have been extremely difficult. May they all rest in peace.

  3. March 2, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    You know, I have looked & looked at post-mortem photos, & I have truly tried to see the “right” in it. But, to me, it (almost) borders on dis-respect.
    True, these people want/need a reminder of their loved one. But, gracious, is this the way to remember them? Dead? I would want to remember them happy, laughing, smiling, playing, celebrating a wedding, or a holiday or a birthday. To pose these poor souls, stand them, sit them, pose them with living siblings. No…bury these poor people, & the sooner the better. Let
    them be at peace.

  1. By on October 14, 2012 at 12:03 am

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