Friday, November 4, 2011

A Lasting Memory

To cap off Halloween week, I'm going to share one of the most bizarre things I've ever encountered in my research:  family portraits that include a dead relative.  At first this didn't surprise me.  In their sorrow, the families surely wanted an image of the lost loved one--case in point this poignant photo of a grieving couple and their dead child from the mid-1800's.

But what disturbed me was finding out that often the photos were taken as if the dead were still alive.  They would paint eyes on the eyelids, and even add pink to their cheeks on the print.

But the most odd custom was propping the deceased up beside their living relatives.  There was even a special stand created for this purpose.

During the Victorian era this type of photography was very popular.  Actually, before photography, the wealthy often had portraits painted of their deceased relatives, often as they appeared alive, though there were sometimes a symbol of death in the portrait. 

This child was probably painted after he died

The girl in the photo at left is deceased.  Eyes have been painted on, there is an odd placement of the hands, and you can see the stand behind her feet.

Honestly, I understand that having images of their relatives might have given the families comfort, and I don't mind (as much) the photos of the deceased--looking deceased.  But propping them up . . . it seems to reveal a desperation.  But I can't judge them.  Grief confronts everyone differently, and who knows the sad stories behind their often untimely deaths.  Plus, since photos were expensive (though less expensive than having a portrait painted) rushing to get one last photo of a child, parent, or spouse is understandable.

There are many of these photos out there, but I'll let you explore the subject more at your own discretion.  Here is a very good website that also offers a good explanation about the evolution of photography.  Victorian Post Mortem Photos

May they all rest in peace . . ./Nancy


  1. Interesting post, Nancy. I had read many times where families would photograph deceased babies to memorialize them, but I'd not heard of photographing the dead as if they were still alive.
    Jan in Nebraska

  2. This is morbid, but completely fascinating! What a study in grief––and in how we memorialize loved ones. Honestly, in this day of graphic everything, I'm surprised we don't see more photos of dead loved ones. At least more funeral photos.

    I can remember as a child being stunned when a great aunt was showing one of my grandmothers Polaroid photos of an elderly uncle in his casket. Not all the family could attend the funeral and those in attendance thought the rest of the family would want to see how he was laid out.

  3. One of the first funerals I attended was my father-in-law's, and I took photos of him in his casket. But then I had second thoughts about whether this was the right thing to do, so I never showed them to anyone. I think most people want to remember their loved ones as they were alive. But in Victorian times, if there WERE no photos of them alive...

  4. I had never heard of this but also find it strangely fascinating. In a time when death visited earlier and more frequently it is hard to imagine how I would have dealt with grief. My heart hurts for those in the photos and it makes me want to know more. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I've seen many Victorian era photos of the deceased, but never ran across the topic of special stands for posing. In our culture today it has seemed to me that many of our customs were about denying the reality of death. I always thought that was a modern convention. Clearly, it isn't. One thing that all of these customs reveal is the truth of what the Bible says: Death is our enemy. I love the verses that promise Death's final defeat.

  6. What a fascinating post! I do not find this morbid at all. As I am constantly taking photos of my little ones (currently 10 months and 23 months), I had often imagined living in a time when this technology wasn't available. And as I look back on my children's photos from only months ago, I see the changes in them, and realize how these images are no longer vivid in my mind. With an photography becoming more affordable for people during the Victorian era, I can understand why these people would have these pictures taken, to have something to remember their loved ones by--especially the children.

  7. Hi! I've awarded you with the "Tell Me About Yourself" Blog Award over at "Gwendolyn Gage ~ Serving Through Words" Congrats!