Photographing the dead

Victorian photo of a dead woman gracefully reclining on a couch.

Postmortem photo of a young woman

Yesterday I talked about a couple celebrating their wedding in a funeral home. Today we turn to actually celebrating the dead in a way that seems to be lost.

You may think that photographing everything is a new phenomenon. Though they didn’t have social media, the Victorians captured many images of life, and death. The woman seen in this picture is dead. It was common practice to photograph the dead in elegant remembrances. These photos give the appearance of a loved one who has simply been caught napping.

Victorian postmortem photo of a woman in a black dress laying with her eyes opened

This postmortem photo has the woman’s eyes open.

In some cases they eyes were opened for the photograph, giving a weird effect. They stare out, strangely.

Victorian color photo of a young black boy standing behind his dead brother who lays on a couch

A brother looks over his dead sibling

It was common to have people pose in the photographs, a tableau of living and dead together. Some of these pictures are incredibly poignant, such as the brother looking over his sibling, apparently napping on the couch.

Victorian postmortem photo of a standing fireman with a drawin showing the rig to pose him

This rig allows the deceased to be posed in a standing position.


A strange, standing photo of a man two years after his death

Of course, the dead did not simply recline. Elaborate rigs were designed to pose a corpse standing. Some of the photos resulting from this technology are pretty bizarre, as the dead stand proudly, or lean jauntily, sometimes surrounded by friends and family. The photo of John O’Connor shows him standing with a couple of gentlemen two years after his death! The card is from the Livingstons Undertakers. Is this a sample of their embalming work?

There are a few photographs that seem to show the dead hanging around for some time between their death and their burial. It’s possible that, since news and people traveled more slowly in this age that they kept the embalmed bodies on view for much longer before they were buried.

Victorian postmortem photo of a teenage girl sitting with handwritten notes around

Notes around this photo indicate the emotion associated with the death and the reluctance to let go

These images are weird and heartbreaking. The emotion is clear in the faces of loved ones included. It’s also interesting the number of children that appear. “Go over there, Timmy, and hold your sister’s cold, dead hand for the man.”

Of course, our modern society has become quite removed from the process of death. Perhaps they were all simply much closer to it, so it wasn’t unusual. I think these are all a good defense if you decide to take a selfie with the deceased at the next funeral.

I’ll close out with a few more striking pictures. I find them all fascinating. Many more can be easily found on the Internet.

A sweet-looking young girl lies as though napping.

A sweet-looking young girl lies as though napping.

A dead girl stares wildly as she poses with her family. Note the base of the stand at her feet.

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