During the Victorian era, people would photograph their deceased loved ones

Originally published at: During the Victorian era, people would photograph their deceased loved ones | Boing Boing

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Whilst postmortem photography was definitely a thing in the 19th and early 20th Centuries; it’s worth remembering that a lot of images online claiming to be memento mori were actually of living people. Early photography required such long exposures subjects that special clamps and stands were used to immobilise the subject which often gives a disturbingly rigid pose that can be confused with postmortem images. The images are even more disturbing if they are a daguerreotype because they often just look weird any way.

So be careful if you plan on collecting these pictures that you’re getting the real thing. There’s an article here with more detail:


I suspect some of those in the video aren’t of the dead, though some of them were…



jink @MikeR


Nobody wants a photo of my live mug, pretty sure my dead mug won’t bring any high dollar bids.


And if the body wasn’t available…


I wonder what the oldest photograph of a person is? If someone died in 1850, and was 100 years old, the photo is of a person born in 1750!

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To my knowledge, the oldest known photograph of a human was this one from 1838 by Daguerre himself:

(Look on the street corner at the bottom left, where a man is getting his shoe shined.)


Post-Morten photography is still common in some areas. Not only family members, but mourners who were friends of the deceased often break out cameras to take one last photo of the guest of honor…

If you haven’t seen this, you’re welcome:

I’d read that you see so many pictures of dead loved ones, especially children because photography was somewhat expensive and, depending where you lived, not readily available to you.

I could be wrong. Very open to being corrected. Cheers.

There’s an Irish TV series from a couple of years ago called Dead Still, with the always excellent Michael Smiley as a post-mortem photographer who gets drawn into the police investigation of a serial killer who poses and photographs his victims.

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You very nearly got it right; Conrad Heyer, born in 1749, photographed in 1852.


These portraits are a plot point in the 2001 spookenmovie The Others with Nicole Kidman.

I wouldn’t call this “memento mori” though. If you got your portrait done as a rich late-medieval person, it might include symbols of the fleetingness of life such as skulls, flowers, (decaying) fruit, and mottoes like vanitas or memento mori (“remember you will die”), as a reminder that attractive monuments are only echoes of youth and beauty, and can’t replace your real but fleeting life.

But these corpse portraits seem to have the opposite intent – they’re supposed to preserve life. But in a dusty Victorian way, which is more morbid than the medieval idea of celebrating death as a frame for life.

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An old friend of mine (rip) once showed me the photos that his wife ( and her co-workers ( midwives )) had taken of babies who were still born, the ones I saw were the ones families didn’t want.
They were dressed and photographed as though asleep, the saddest thing I’ve ever seen…

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