Victorian Post Mortem Photography: photos with the dead. Myth or fact?

A fascinating story that regularly does the internet rounds is Victorian Post Mortem Photography.
Literally: Photos with people after they’ve died.

It often goes like this:
In the nineteenth century, it was a custom to take photos with recently deceased people, especially if a photograph has not been taken whilst they were still alive. These photos were called ”Post Mortem,” coming from Latin, meaning after death.  Sometimes also called memorial portraiture or a mourning portrait.

In one version of the story, it originated in England, when Queen Victoria asked to photograph the corpse of an acquaintance or a relative, so she could keep as a souvenir.
Soon after, this idea spread around the world, keeping a morbid reminder of loved ones that have passed on.  These photographs served as keepsakes to remember the deceased, helping in mourning and grieving.

Post Mortem Victorian photography of the recently deceased
One of the photos that accompanies the story.  The colour of her hands is the proof given that the girl who is standing in the photo is the one who is dead.

But is it true?

Well no… and yes.

Often commissioned by families in grieving, postmortem photographs not only helped in mourning, but often represented the only visual remembrance of the deceased.   This was especially common with infants and young children; Victorian era childhood mortality rates were extremely high (around 20%), and a post-mortem photograph might have been the only image of the child the family ever had and were among a family’s most precious possessions.  So that much is true.

As for Queen Victoria starting the craze:  She’s rightfully credited as being a trendsetter in many things, but lets’s stop to think for a moment:  That version of history is a little too anglo-centric to be entirely true, as there are post-mortem images from all over the world that date well before Queen Victoria, but let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Post Mortem photographs actually “continued the tradition of earlier painted mourning portraits, or deathbed portraits, which is a portrait of a person who has recently died, usually shown on their deathbed, or lying in repose, displayed for mourners.”

Portrait of a dead child wearing a mourning wreath around its head, by Jan Jansz. de Stomme, 1654
Portrait of a dead child wearing a mourning wreath around its head, by Jan Jansz. de Stomme, 1654

So what about the photo of the two girls, the dead one standing up?

It’s generally explained like this:  “For people wondering how the corpse is standing up, there is a posing stand supporting the body it’s very hard to see but the stand is supporting the neck, arms and back.”

True?  Nope, myth. Complete fabrication.  But rooted in the use of a handy gadget sometimes used in photography around that time.

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You know what corpses are not?  Life like.
You know what else they can’t do?  Support themselves to stand.

Leaning a corpse up against a stand just is not enough to keep it upright. It’s not possible, nor was it what these stands were used for.

So, if not for corpses, what are those stands actually for?  (It’s called a Brady Stand, in case you were curious.)

Stands were were for the living people who had their photos taken.  In the nineteenth century, people had to be very, very still while photographs were taken as they needed longer exposure times to work.  So they were given stands to help them stay in place.

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If they didn’t hold perfectly still, the photo would be ruined.

Twins standing for a photo. The left is blurred because they didn't stand still. The right has a stand to help them stay still, so is in focus.
Twins standing for a photo. The left is blurred because they didn’t stand still. The right has a stand to help them stay still, so is in focus.

And the colour of the hands?  Just the limits of the technology of the time.  If you have a close look at the first photo, you can see that the sitting lass has two different coloured hands.  Lighting in the photography studio is an easy way to lighten up the faces, and a good knowledge of lighting is still used now in almost all professional photography.

One more thing, you might be sitting there thinking: Oh, those silly historical people with their weird Post-Mortem customs.  But it’s not just history, it’s a custom that is still carried on today.  In countries such as Australia, England and in the USA, stillborn baby photos are called “Angel Babies” and professional photographers volunteer to take their photos to give to grieving families.

So there you have it, truth in the myth, but a myth still.

Victoria Memento Mori is always fascinating and beautiful, but this particular sect of it can be safely laid to rest.

I hope you’ve enjoyed your trip down the morbid side of history, Darklings. Leave me a link in the comments below of any other fascinating things you might come across, and I’ll see you soon for more morbidly merry, or merrily morbid, fun later.

-JesterNoir.

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