Dead photos – Victorian post-mortem photographs

By , October 16, 2009 1:26 am

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.

Dead child with siblings in attendance. Note the slight blur on the standing children owing to the long exposure

Dead man photographed in Sheffield, Yorkshire

Mother, father, three living children, two dead children

Mother, father, three living children, two dead children

Parents and dead teenage girl

Parents and dead teenage girl

Laid out before burial

Laid out before burial

Young girl posed on a rock after death

Young girl posed on a rock after death

Victorian post-mortem photograph of a girl standing (propped up) with living relatives

Victorian post-mortem photograph of a girl standing (propped up) with living relatives

Victorian post-mortem photograph showing brothers

Victorian post-mortem photograph showing brothers

Victorian post-mortem photograph of a young girl

Victorian post-mortem photograph of a young girl

Post mortem photograph of a young girl, taken in Tonbridge, Kent

Post mortem photograph of a young girl, taken in Tonbridge, Kent

76 Responses to “Dead photos – Victorian post-mortem photographs”

  1. Blog author says:

    Morbid, and gruesome, but fascinating (-:

    • nancy elliott says:

      You really missed the point. Your sensitivity needs fine tuning. These photos were not taken to satiate your morbid curiosity.

      • MARK says:

        No, but they were certainly POSTED for that purpose. One can be fascinated to learn about a practice from long ago without being morbid.

      • Samantha says:

        It’s sort of not up to you to judge personal feelings. We’re each allowed our own impressions.

      • dana says:

        Clearly Nancy did not read the article but only looked at the pictures. ‘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…’

  2. It’s weird to see the dead children and their little coffins…touching!

  3. Photographs of deceased ones close to us are a precious keepsake to be cherished.

    • John says:

      This child is so beautiful. In many cases family in other countries may never have seen the deceased and this serves a special form of closure.

  4. Midsomer says:

    The modern world is so removed from the death of its loved ones that we too often only see photographs such as these as grotesque. The time when family members washed the bodies, dressed them for burial, and dug the grave is really not so long ago. Now, like care of all kinds, we’ve handed what was once a sacred duty over to strangers – and lost much in the process.

    • twilightdream says:

      I agree 10000000%. These pictures, have they been the person criticizing’s family member it would not be grotesque. I see it as a celebration of their life.

    • Helen Hayes says:

      yes – thats so true. having had a baby die of cot death. it would have seemed like it was such the right thing to do for me, as the mother to do all of that. It would have helped my recovery a lot I think

    • Bob Stevenson says:

      I came to this site as I write Gothic horror and other stories of the supernatural and was looking at research in the subject of death photo’s. I leave this reply to agree with your views on modern death. We have become removed, I remember when the coffin of a dead relative would be in the living room and we would all pay our respects, in death they were still with us.Now they die alone forgotten in some “Home”.

  5. Polprav says:

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  6. [...] Dead photos – Victorian post-mortem photographs – Photo [...]

  7. ReadMe Today » Blog Archive » Weekly links #3 says:

    [...] Dead photos – Victorian post-mortem photographs – Photo [...]

  8. Wow, it really goes to show how silly traditions are, that something this creepy could’ve been standard fare back then

    • rux says:

      No offense, did you take a second thought before writing this? Perhaps at that time photos were very expensive and people found it natural to do something like this to preserve the memory of a loved one, even if a bit too late.

      Also, I consider the thinking of the grieving family to do such think superior to your “Silly” – qualification of their action.

      • rux that was not only succinctly put, but it was right on target as well. perhaps some people dont know that a lack of understanding and empathy is not only boorish ,silly and somewhat creepy in itself. to them it may just be standard fare.

        • Jen says:

          People also took pictures so very seriously – they didn’t even smile in them. It’s not like it is today where taking a photo is associated with fun and carefree feelings.

          • Blog author says:

            I don’t think it was taking it seriously, so much as a 5 minute exposure time. hard to hold a smile that long!

            • Samantha says:

              You might be an idiot. Nope, yes, I’m pretty sure you are. If you travel to countries like Nicaragua (slumping economy, lack of luxuries such as film) you might notice that the poor take photos EXTREMELY seriously. It’s a very solemn occasion to have your photo taken – just like it was in 1900.

              The young crowd around you to view their photos on digi. It’s a marvelous thing.

    • Maggie says:

      It`s not creepy especially if it`s your own relatives. The entertainment industry is to blame for making us fearful of the dead through horror films and the like.
      It should be natural to look after the dead as we look after the living. When my dad died I made sure that I saw him in his coffin to make sure he had on the clothes I chose for him to wear, and that he was placed neatly and in a manner that he would have wished. That`s not grotesque or strange, it`s what we do naturally to show love to our loved ones after they have left us.

    • nancy elliott says:

      I think you are the odd one. This little girl had a name, she was loved, and lost way too soon. This is not morbid. This is what they had to work with at the time. Unfortunately, after you have lost the ones you love, you may then realize the necessity for what you call “silly traditions”.

      • Alvina says:

        My aunt just passed away 2 days ago. Her brother wanted to take a picture and at first it felt so strange to me. But you know she looked so peaceful and calm like we had seen her before her illness and suffering had begun. That picture now serves us as a reminder that she is truly at rest and that she did not lose but actually gained something from her death, she re-gained her freedom and her peace that CJD had taken away from her.

        I come from a muslim family and I has never before been closely related to the deceased so i didn’t know about the rituals or the procedures especially because i’m not religious and don’t read about it.

        Islamic funerals are extremely “au natural” and super pure. We want the body to go exactly the same way as it came to be. So no fancy clothes, no make-up, no glam, and yes even no embalming (unless the body needs to be transported which is rare). So as you may imagine the funeral proceedings are quick because nothing is preserving the body.

  9. Carrie says:

    Very interesting post. There is a huge archive of these post mortem photos at http://www.thanatos.net

  10. hels says:

    I don’t think it is weird or obsessive. If families didn’t record the person’s image just before he/she was buried, how would they ever memorialise their loved one? In most cases, the post-mortem photograph was the only photograph they would ever have.

    In any case, they are posed beautifully.. peacefully.

  11. RazorX says:

    My girlfriend owns a copy of Barbara Norfleet’s Looking at Death.
    It got me interested in these kind of pictures. That tanatos site is no option for me because it’s not free but I found some more sites with a lot of post mortem pictures.

    http://www.antiquephotoalbum.nl

    http://www.paulfrecker.com

  12. Rachel says:

    The family above with the 2 babies in there caskets seems kinda strange to me. WHY ARE THERE 2 BABIES DEAD AT THE SAME TIME? That is unusual to me. The father in the photo does not seem sad. If this were to happen today there would be a investigation. Could this had been a homicide?

    • Marisol Ruiz says:

      There was the thougt at the time that if you cry a young child’s death your tears would wet the wings of the angel that will fly them to heaven. That’s why you dont see anyone crying in these kind of picture.

      • Jen says:

        And it appears they were likely twins. You may know already that twins are higher risk even in modern times. Without prenatal care and the option of a natural delivery, there are a variety of reasons a family would lose two babies at once.

        • ashley says:

          fever was a very common cause of death in infants and if one child got it then likely the others would as well. teh family is lucky they didnt lose all 5 of their children.

          • Janne says:

            My husband’s grandmother’s two young boys died of Typhoid within 2 weeks of each other. They were 3 years apart and both under the age of 5. Two babies in the same family passing away at these times was COMMON. I have to say, there were few images of these boys while they were alive. To find post-mortem photos may seem morbid by some, but I agree with others here on that. It was not for entertainment! It was for preserving the precious memory the only way they could of a dead child or loved one. Often it was the only image they would have. It is disturbing to us but to the mother and/or father, it was a precious link to someone they would never see again in this life.

  13. Marie says:

    Beautifull, but we don’t seem to respect the dead anymore. I have a 5 year old son, not sure if I would take a picture of him dead though, may be that’s because I have so many of him alive, but in those days this may have been set up as a momento for the lost children and may have been the only picture the parents had. Very sad to think that children have to die at all really ;(

  14. Marisol Ruiz says:

    Is always shoking to see little children die, but if you realize that these pictures were taken in the XIX century you have to take in mind that mortality for children were high even more than in young and mid adults. And you have also to considerate that photographs were a luxury in those times, and sometimes the only mememto you were able to keep w

  15. Rosie says:

    I at first thought this strange in modern times but having recently lost my grandson at 19 days old Inow undertand why people still do it. We were lucky having our little one at home healthy for a week and lots of photos were taken but my daughters friends baby was still born and she never had that privelidge. She hired a photographer to take photos of her, her partner and her baby and they are beautiful. These photos are all she has

  16. @rosie: that is amazingly cool.my daughters baby son was still born and at the hospital they wouldnt allow her to take any pictures of him. she was very upset about this. it was hard on her as it would be hard for anyone . but she is only 16 and really needed some closure in order to put this firmly behind her .

  17. Cyn says:

    I photographed four siblings holding a photo of their deceased brother yesterday. Their mom always wanted a photo of all five of them together and didn’t get her chance before her 18 year old was killed!

  18. Danielle says:

    I would like to give my sympathy to all the people whose children have passed on and thank them for sharing their thoughts. I love the pictures and I think it is the most natural thing anyone would want to do. I have a friend whose baby was lost at 16 weeks of her pregnancy; she took him home for the day and her husband took lots of photos, of which she is rightly proud. One should never pass judgement on someone else’s grief.

  19. Their attitudes were so opposite from ours. Death was always close by, while sex was kept firmly in private. Nowadays, sex is shouted from every window and street corner, while we pass over the subject of death, having no idea what to say or think.

  20. Vlad says:

    I vant to drink zere bludd!

  21. Med. says:

    The photographs may not be easy to look at for us but they meant something to the families who had them taken and who are we to question how anybody deals with the death of their child ? I personally found it heartbreaking ..It must have been very important to these people, just think how long it took to take a photograph at the time and how they managed to pose as they obviously thought they should , not in tears or showing emotions.. how difficult must that have been? Perhaps we should all remember that people still have open casket funerals in some parts and how is this much different really.. each to their own eh.

  22. Adrian says:

    I would rather remember the person I loved alive. I couldn’t imagine having a photo of my loved one dead. Its the same reason that when I attend a wake or a funeral I don’t go near the casket. I cherish my memories and photos of the person alive.

  23. Vanessa says:

    are there any dates avaliable for these photographs??

  24. Vanessa says:

    the last photograph of the little girl – is there any images or information on what it written on the back of the photo mount? the mount says flemons tonbridge – googled it and found this website that says when the Flemons were established – 1864
    http://www.tonbridgehistory.org.uk/people/tonbridge-photographers.htm
    i was wondering if this photograph said something similar?
    i am doing a uni project on this sort of data so any help would be appreciated thanks

  25. Sierra says:

    great pictures but sad at the same time.

  26. Cathy says:

    Many times the reasons for taking such pictures were because having your picture taken back then was a BIG…and expensive deal. It was also usually something you wouldn’t be able to do often, if ever more than one time. So when a family member would die before they ever got a picture taken of them…ESPECIALLY in the case of children, they would rush to have that precious picture taken of their loved one. Many parents of deceased children, never got the chance for that ‘family portrait’ or a portrait of all their children together, and with the death of one…or more of them, this was their only chance to have a lasting image of their child.
    I collect old photos…and just last week found and bought my very first Victorian Post-Mortem photo. Its of 3 girls-a baby on a chair, the oldest-a girl about 12 (who does not look happy to be there) and a girl about 5 or 6 sitting on a chair…but her eyes, were drawn in…in the picture, they are closed and her body pose looks unnatural and the chair is covered by a blanket-most likely so no one could see the apparatus used to hold the child in place-which was very common to use back then. I also found another I think might be another post-mortem photo…its a couple and a little baby-the baby looks propped on a pedestal of some sort between them-the dad is sitting, the mom, standing…but again, the eyes are unnatural and dran in on the baby as is the body posture. They would often draw in the eyeballs later on, so as to try and make the person look alive or more natural…but it never does, it seems.

    Some people think its strange that I collect old photos-even before I found these 2 I got last week lol but I look at it this way…if I didn’t buy each and every old photo I have, the person/people in them, would be forgotten…tucked away in that box in an antique store somewhere. I like to think that by me buying each picture I get, that I’m keeping a memory alive…validating that each person in each photo, at one time…existed and still does matter in some way. :)

  27. Fab says:

    Poor sweetie :(

  28. [...] looked dead. Honestly. They (unintentionally, I’m sure) were EXTREMELY reminiscent of the postmortem photos of the Victorian era. Anne Deaddes. [...]

  29. Scottman says:

    Hey kids! Put on you’r nicest clothes. We’re going to take some pics with your dead brother! Thats some weird sh*t!

  30. [...] Dead photos ??“ Victorian post-mortem photographs | History and … Oct 16, 2009 … Death, in Victorian England, was a grand and complicated business. There were many social rules in … [...]

  31. CMF says:

    It is extremly sad, but so beautiful as well. I have always been fascinated with the dead, and these pictures were so beautiful. It is not a sad thing, really, but they took pictures so they could remember the deceased. Such a strange and beautiful thing. People may disagree, but if you think about it, it was more done out of love for the deceased.

  32. [...] post mortem pictures Oct 16, 2009 … Death, in Victorian England, was a grand and complicated business. There were many social rules in … [...]

  33. Long before i knew there was even such a thing as post mortem photography, i took pictures of my son who was still born, and when my dad died, i went to his viewing and took pictures of him in his coffin. i think its just a natural thing to want to hold on to the last end of a loved ones life.

  34. ellen groves paiva says:

    We need to be thankful for modern medicine and hospitals. The pain people went though those days; people say “they were thougher then”. No, I said they had it tough. The children are so beautiful. I wish I could go back to help them. The sweet things. I have children and makes me stop and think. Bless the families.

  35. ellen groves paiva says:

    My grandmother’s family in Germany lost a 2 year old and a 14 year old (2 out of 10 lost) but it was very hard on the family. Illnesses that a hospital visit today would have taken care of.

  36. Julissa Elaine Garcia says:

    hi, uhm id really like if the person who had posted the young girl one. try and contact me i cann nott explain now thats why i need you to cantact me. i am nott on an email verry much so please send me a message on facebook- name is (Julissa Elaine Garcia) email is (julissada1@live.com) or just call me or give me some way to cantact you please this is sooo ergent! my number is 402-316-6325

  37. Malinda Talcott says:

    Just started knitting and I love a challenge. These babies would be the perfect thing to make for some new babies in my life. Thank you for the opportunity!

  38. Gary says:

    It’s understandable to take photos. Just imagine loosing a loved one especially a child and forgetting what they looked like after years have passed. We are blessed to live in a time where childhood mortality is low and people live fairly long lives and we have tons of pictures of our loved ones.

    • curious by nature says:

      I agree! as one poster said, we now take photos as carefree people and we have tons of memories! Back then, people didn’t smile in pictures, even when they were actually happy. I have pictures of my great grandmother and grandmother in the early 1900s. It was thought of showing teeth in a photo makes you look “simple.” Times have changed! Native Americans would photograph because, from what was told to me, it steals your soul.

  39. toria says:

    where is a good site to buy similar photos as i would like to start collecting them

  40. [...] that’s not weird enough, then have a look at this collection of Victorian family portraits, all taken post-mortem. A case of ‘you prop them up, we’ll do the [...]

  41. Poshumous portaiture is so interesting, particularly the early Victorian stuff.

    I am currently working at a museum, and today I came across what I am fairlyyy certain is a postmortem photo.

    Check it out, I’m up for a debate:
    http://pagepaige.blogspot.com/2012/02/museum-internship-interesting-finds.html

  42. dan the man says:

    In some cases, there is no way to prove the photos were taken post mortem. The posing stands could be used to hold the subject still for the long exposure time. The painted on eyelids might be because they blinked.

  43. megen says:

    so sad

  44. curious by nature says:

    I’m not going to lie to anyone…At first, I thought this was a little weird. When I first I got exposed to post-mortem photography I was watching how parents (in today’s society) would call this photographer and they will take pictures of their dead newborn babies. A lof of times, it was the first and last photograph of these newborns bc they will die shortly after birth. Sometimes, siblings would be present. Even though I was a little spooked, I couldn’t help to notice how tastefully these photos were done and it brought closure to the family. As I looked more into this subject, this was not a new process. After reviewing the history of why post mortem pictures were important and knowing how people lived in those times I understand more. Looking at post mortem photos it appears that the deceased were cared for and loved by their family. It is a loving gester. People need to have more of an open mind to these things, and the lives that these people lived. As a nurse, I was forced to consider my own mortality and I no long thing death as the end. It’s the beginning of a new phase, being called home to God.

  45. Isla Cartier says:

    Being a Spiritualist, I do not find these photos creepy but instead very poignant and haunting. I wonder about the lives, dreams, and aspirations of the people in the pictures. And, I pray the loved ones in the photos who have died, moved on and are not still here.

  46. arlene says:

    touching, beautiful, sad and hard to look at. maybe they would think the way we do it with our loved one is sad.
    Everything is so rushed and final.

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