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. How is this possible! Well back then, photographers would use contraptions to make the deceased bodies standup. (Also, if you look at her hands, they’re significantly grayer than the girl sitting next to her.) Below is a great example that I found that shows a “zoomed-out” preparation of this:

Although the body is sitting, you can see the mechanics behind the body holding him up. When looking at photographs, one can commonly figure out whether a photo is post-mortem or not based on a stand (or pole) behind the back, if noticeable, or typically a “ring” around the neck or head, as can be seen around this late gentleman’s head. I will late discuss how to tell whether a post-mortem photograph is post-mortem or not without these “hints” to tell us.

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 victims of death being posed for these photographs.

An example I will show below is of a deceased child with their eyes open:


Something I wanted to bring up especially with this photo is, as previously mentioned in my post, there aren’t always ways of telling whether the subject of a photograph is post-mortem or not based on the propping stands. 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 body “eyes.” (I have never come across a photo with said paint on the eyes before, however this is based on what I have read.) Also, although I am by no means a professional, I *believe* this photo of the child above has painted on eyes. If I am wrong, please do let me know!

Something else to keep mind of 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 woman and two acquaintances of hers:
The woman is perfectly still, whereas the two others are blurred. Back in this early time, photography was extremely sensitive, so often times photographs from this time were blurry because those posing could not keep still. However, if the subject was deceased, they would be stark still in the photo.

With that last statement, I will transition us into a showcase of one more of my favorite post-modern photos and end this with a link to an interesting article I had found. Do you think the men in the article are deceased? Please comment and let me know!

(I love how doll-like the deceased girl looks!) (Link to the deceased men I am a bit skeptical about.)

(Links sourced are below: