13 December 2012

Postmortem photography at the turn of the 20th century



Google search result on Post-Mortem Photograph [10 Dec 2012]
I first came in contact with this concept with a photograph from a relative who died in an insane asylum – literally as a mad hatter. This is one photograph I have never shared with anyone.  I acquired it from a distant relative and we agreed that we would respect this long-deceased relative by not publishing this particular photo.

Though, to “see” this ancestor (it’s the only photo we have of him) just really makes him more real.  And, it was not uncommon for family members to take such photographs as a way to honor and remember their recently deceased relatives.

I was reminded of this via a post with the above title, written by Joe Festa for the N-YHS Library blog. As he says ...

Today, photographs of dead humans are seen as taboo, and talk of death is almost always avoided at all costs. But this hasn’t always been the case. During the 19th- and early 20th-centuries, capturing the image of a corpse was commonplace, and was viewed as a normal, culturally acceptable practice.


Shortly after reading this article, I happened to come across The Thanatos Archive (which happens to also have a facebook page).  Some other collections I found online include: Paul Frecker and Victorian Post-mortem Photos (Pinterest).  Additionally, there are a couple of youtube videos on this subject – Victorian Post Mortem Photos’: Memento Mori and Victorian Post Mortem Photography.

Though such photos can be unsettling and sad to look at, there is also such an element of love and respect imbued in these photos that I cannot help but be touched by them.

The holidays are a time where we often celebrate family and that often does include those who have predeceased us.  Though today, we typically have enough photos of our family members when alive, that we enjoy those, sometimes for other ancestors, a postmorten photograph may be all we might find.

Did your family have a tradition of taking postmortem photographs? 




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