Post-Mortem Photography: A Great Interest of Mine

by Ann Neilson

I would like to introduce this subject to those who do not know about it already.

Post-Mortem photography was a big fad in the 1800s, used as a way of preserving deceased family members and/or loved ones while they were still “alive”; basically while they were still in good enough shape despite being dead.

It’s really interesting what these photos looked like. I would like to present a photo before I delve more into this topic:


Look between the two young ladies. Who do you think is deceased?

If you said the young woman on our left, you’re incorrect. In fact, the young woman standing is deceased. As you read on, I will discuss how to tell whether a post-mortem photograph is truly post-mortem or not. Please keep in mind beforehand that I am not an expert in this field—it is a mere hobby and interest of mine.

Typically in post-mortem photography, as shown above, deceased bodies were posed with their eyes open. However, some were also posed with eyes closed. Below is an example:


As seen, the baby is the one who is deceased, because their eyes are closed. (Trust me, it’s the baby.) Babies and young children were typically the posed victims of death in post-mortem photos. Something to note is when those deceased were photographed with their eyes closed, sometimes photographers (I’m assuming? or painters) would paint eyes onto the photographs to give the deceased face a pair of open “eyes.” (I have never come across a photo in person with said paint on the eyes before, however this is based on what I have read.)


One other thing to keep in mind when determining whether a subject is deceased or not is based on how still or not the subject is. For example, the photo I will show below is of a deceased daughter and her parents:
The woman is perfectly still, whereas the two others are blurred. Back in the primitive days of photography, the time it took to photograph a subject was much longer than is conveniently done in our modern era. The shutter exposure was extremely sensitive, also, so often times photographs were blurry because those posing could not keep still—a cracked smile may occasionally be seen, but do you wonder why many don’t smile in their photos? That’s a lot of effort to hold still! I digress. If the subject was deceased, they would be stark still in the photo, as seen above. (I’m sure if the deceased subject were to blur if even slightly, that would cause for both concern and delight from the family, don’t you think!)

Thus, with this brief knowledge, I will leave my post at an end here. Please feel free to comment and let me know if you have any extra knowledge to share about the art of post-mortem photography, or even if you own your own post-mortem photo! What qualities about it make it one, if so?

(I love how doll-like the deceased girl looks!)