Death, in Victorian England, was a grand and complicated business. There were many social rules in the classes who could afford it about mourning clothes, degrees of morning, and the length of time for which different mourning colours were to be worn.
A widow, for example, wore “deep mourning” (non-reflective black) for a year, including a full veil if she went outside. She then wore any colour black for another 9 months, then light mourning (including grey and purple) for another 3 to 6 months.
There was also a common custom, which seems distinctly odd today, of having photographs taken of the dead – sometimes on their own, sometimes in posed family groups, but all post-mortem photos.
In some cases, especially with children, there might well have been no other photographs for the family to keep. Photographs were expensive, and complicated to take and arrange, and therefore most people didn’t have them done frequently. The death of a baby or child therefore often meant that the family had no photograph of the person at all, or no photograph taken with children born later than the one who had died.
But in other cases, it was part of a morbid fascination with death – the kind of behaviour that saw Queen Victoria go into black widow’s clothes for 4 decades, from the time of her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1860 until she died herself in 1901. Thus the photographs showing a young mother’s children draped over her grave or tombstone, for example.
Some of these dead photos featured the person lying down, as if asleep. In others, the person was propped up, and even had his eyes painted in after the photo was taken. In these cases, the only way you can be sure which person is definitely dead is by noting that the face is very clear – the long exposures needed meant that living people tended to blur, slightly.
There were similar photographs taken in other countries, of course- but the examples below (all out of copyright owing to their age) are English ones.