In honor of the Dia de los Muertos (November 2nd), we’re digging up a lesser-known piece of photographic history.
Memorial photography was the common practice of taking a person’s portrait after they passed away.
Since our culture now fears death more than we mourn it, these photos are seen today as macabre. But it was actually a beautiful tradition that helped families keep a small memento of the loved ones they had lost.
Though it’s a bit of a departure from our usual fare, we wanted to share some history that’s gone but not forgotten.
Thanks to reader Blake Nolan for the idea!
p.s. This article does show photos of dead people, so don’t click through if that kind of thing freaks you out.
Death in the 1800s
Infant mortality rates were terribly high, and diseases like tuberculosis, cholera and plain old infection killed many adults.
In an age when hospitalization was uncommon, people died and were prepared for burial at home. Facing death often and at home meant that people were, if not less afraid of death than we are now, then at least more accustomed to it.
What Photography Meant
Though more affordable than having a portrait painted, photographs were still expensive and reserved for special occasions.
In many cases, no photograph of the loved one existed before they died. Taking their portrait after death was a way to hold onto a visual remembrance.
Even a sad memory was better than no memory at all.
Most of them show the deceased lying in bed, although some have them sitting up and holding flowers. A disturbing few show the deceased with their eyes open.
The photographer would sometimes hand-color a rosy flush onto the person’s cheeks, and (in rare cases) even draw pupils onto closed eyelids.
Since having a photograph taken was so expensive, many people economized by posing for a family portrait at the same time. Some photographers posed the parents or siblings with the departed family member, while others show the entire family at the funeral.
End of an Era
At the same time, the advent of antibiotics and vaccines lowered the death rate significantly. Instead of staying at home, people began to go to the hospital before they died. When death became less of an everyday matter, it became more alien and frightening.
Although the practice of post-mortem portraiture persisted into the 20th century for some notable people, today it is largely perceived as morbid and creepy.
Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta recently confronted their fear of death by photographing terminal hospice patients before and after their deaths. They found that the process of dying was ultimately all about understanding and appreciating life.
Some photographers donate their time to the Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation to help grieving parents through the loss of their stillborn or infant children. By being there for the family and photographing the infant, they help people remember the child they lost.
- The Thanatos Archive is dedicated to the collection, conservation and preservation of memorial photographs and their history.
- Paul Frecker London has an extensive gallery of post-mortem photographs.
- Dan Meinwald’s article “Memento Mori” is an outstanding look at the relationship between death and photography.
- “Death in America” is a documentary based on the post-mortem photography collection of the Burns Archive.