Post-mortem photography

Post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture or a mourning portrait) is the practice of photographing the recently deceased. Various cultures use and have used this practice, though the best-studied area of post-mortem photography is that of Europe and America.[1] There can be considerable dispute as to whether individual early photographs actually show a dead person or not, often sharpened by commercial considerations.

The form continued the tradition of earlier painted mourning portraits. Today post-mortem photography is most common in the contexts of police and pathology work.

History and popularity

The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 made portraiture much more commonplace, as many of those who were unable to afford the commission of a painted portrait could afford to sit for a photography session.[2] This cheaper and quicker method also provided the middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones.

Post-mortem photography was very common in the nineteenth century when "death occurred in the home and was quite an ordinary part of life."[3] As photography was a new medium, it is plausible that "many daguerreotype post-mortem portraits, especially those of infants and young children, were probably the only photographs ever made of the sitters. The long exposure time made deceased subjects easy to photograph.'"[3] (The problem of long exposure times also led to the phenomenon of hidden mother photography, where the mother was hidden in-frame to calm a young child and keep them still.[4]) According to Mary Warner Marien, "post-mortem photography flourished in photography's early decades, among clients who preferred to capture an image of a deceased loved one rather than have no photograph at all."[5]

These photographs served as keepsakes to remember the deceased. The later invention of the carte de visite, which allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative, meant that copies of the image could be mailed to relatives. Approaching the 20th century, cameras became more accessible and more people began to be able to take photographs for themselves.

In America, post-mortem photography became an increasingly private practice by the mid-to-late nineteenth century, with discussion moving out of trade journals and public discussion.[6] The now more private practice was studied by anthropologist Jay Ruby who was able to find limited information after the turn of the century, but noted a resurgence in the so-called "mourning tableaux" - where the living were photographed surrounding the coffin of the deceased, sometimes with the deceased visible - in America in the 1930s.[6] He was also able to find examples of death photography as a private practice in America his own time - the 1960s.[7] Barbara Norfleet investigated further and discovered the practice of post-mortem photography continued in America right up until World War II "at least among rural and urban working-and middle-class families [in ethnic minorities]."[1] Her conclusion centred on the work of African-American portrait photographer James Van Der Zee in Harlem from 1917-1940s, whose Harlem Book of the Dead is a collection post-mortem portraits of other African Americans in Harlem over the course of his career.[8]

In Britain, Audrey Linkman found a similar continuation of post-mortem photography in the inter-war years, indicating the practice was not limited to the Victorian Era in Britain, though she said little about wider Europe.[9] She also was a strong supporter of Barbara Norfleet's research into the ethnic minorities and middle-classes of America, insisting that post-mortem photography remained popular among these groups for far longer than the upper classes who had previously been studied.[9]

Post-mortem photography as early as the 1970s was taken up by artists, and continues today. Audrey Linkman,[9] Christopher Townsend[10] and Lauren Summersgill[11] have all researched this particular area of study. Artists include Jeffrey Silverthorne, Hans Danuser, Hannah Wilke, Nick Wapping, British photographer Sue Fox, Nan Golden, and Andres Serrano's series The Morgue. Summersgill argues that artists in America in the 1990s used post-mortem photography to fight against the increasing medicalisation of death.[12]

Personal post-mortem photography is considered to be largely private, with the exception of the public circulation of stillborn children in the charity website Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep [13] and the controversial rise of funeral selfies on phones.[14]

Evolving style

Syrian bishop seated in state at his funeral (ca. 1945).

Jay Ruby’s analysis of various styles in post-mortem photography – particularly the poses of the deceased – argued that key poses reflected cultural attitudes toward death.[6][10] Ruby argued for the dominance of the ‘Last Sleep’ pose in the first forty years of post-mortem portraiture. In the ‘Last Sleep’ the deceased’s eyes are closed and they lay as though in repose, which Ruby argued reflected the American desire to associate death with sleep.[6]

Another popular arrangement was to have the deceased presented seated in a chair or arranged in a portrait to mimic life because these photographs would serve as their last social presence.[15] In the Victorian era it was not uncommon to photograph deceased young children or newborns in the arms of their mother. The inclusion of the mother, it has been argued, encourages one to see through the mother's eyes: "The desire to see through the mother’s eyes, and even identify with such pain would have been more potent at the time, when the daguerreotype would be shown to friends and family who might have known the child and certainly knew the family."[16]

Post-mortem photograph of young child with flowers
Nineteenth-century photograph of a deceased child with flowers

While some images (especially tintypes and ambrotypes) have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse, it is untrue that metal stands and other devices were used to pose the dead as though they were living.[17] The use by photographers of a stand or arm rest (sometimes referred to as a Brady stand), which aided living persons to remain still long enough for the camera's lengthy exposure time, has given rise to this myth. While 19th-century people may have wished their loved ones to look their best in a memorial photograph, evidence of a metal stand should be understood as proof that the subject was a living person.[17]

Later photographic examples show the subject in a coffin. Some very late examples show the deceased in a coffin with a large group of funeral attendees; this type of photograph was especially popular in Europe and less common in the United States.[9]

As noted above, post-mortem photography is still practised and is common in America among women who experienced stillbirth; commemorated on websites such as "Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep".[18] This style of mother holding child was also common in the Victorian era when death of infants was common.[7] Photographs, especially depicting persons who were considered to be very holy lying in their coffins, are still circulated among faithful Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians.[19]

In other cultures


It is believed that the post-mortem photography died out in the Nordic countries around 1940. When examining Iceland's culture surrounding death, it is concluded that the nation held death as an important and significant companion.[20] Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the country's infant mortality rate was higher than the rest of European countries. Consequently, death was a public topic that was considerably seen through Icelanders' religious lenses. There are many that believe Iceland's attitudes about post-mortem photography can be drawn out from its earlier attitudes about death. In the early 1900s, it wasn't uncommon to read a local newspaper's obituary section and find detailed information regarding an individual's death, including instances where suicide occurred. How post-mortem photography began in Iceland remains uncertain, but these photographs can be traced to the late nineteenth century.

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

Post-mortem photography was particularly popular in Victorian Britain.[21] From 1860-1910, these Post-mortem portraits were much like American portraits in style, focusing on the deceased either displayed as asleep or with the family; often these images were placed in family albums.[22] The study has often been mixed with American traditions, because the two are so similar.[9][10][2][11]

See also


  1. ^ a b Norfleet, Barbara (1993). Looking at Death. Boston, MA: David R. Godine. p. 13.
  2. ^ a b Bunge, J.A., & Mord, J. (2015). Beyond the dark veil: Post-mortem & mourning photography from the Thanatos archive. San Francisco, CA: Grand Central Press & Last Gasp.
  3. ^ a b Hirsche, Robert (2009). Seizing the Light: a Social History of Photography. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. p. 34–35.
  4. ^ Bathurst, Bella (December 2, 2013). "The lady vanishes: Victorian photography's hidden mothers". The Guardian. Retrieved January 28, 2018.
  5. ^ Marien, Mary Warner (2002). Photography: A Cultural History. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
  6. ^ a b c d Ruby, Jay (1995). Secure the Shadow: Death Photography in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. p. 63.
  7. ^ a b Ruby, Jay. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America.
  8. ^ Van Der Zee, James (1978). The Harlem Book of the Dead. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Morgan and Morgan.
  9. ^ a b c d e Linkman, Audrey (2011). Photography and Death. Reaktion. p. 69.
  10. ^ a b c Townsend, Chris (2008). Art and Death. London: I.B. Tauris.
  11. ^ a b Summersgill, Lauren. Visible Care: Nan Goldin and Andres Serrano’s Post-mortem Photography. Doctoral thesis (Birkbeck, University of London: 2016)
  12. ^ Summersgill, Lauren. “‘Cookie in her Casket’ as a response to the Medical Death”. And Death Shall Have Dominion: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Dying, Caregivers, Death, Mourning, and the Bereaved, eds. K. Malecka and R. Gibbs. (London: Interdisciplinary Press, 2015).
  13. ^ "Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep".
  14. ^ Fussell, Sidney. "Should You Take Funeral Selfies?".
  15. ^ Edwards, Elizabeth (2005). "Post-mortem and memorial photography". In Lenman, Robin; Nicholsen, Angela (eds.). The Oxford Companion to the Photograph. ISBN 978-0-19-866271-6.
  16. ^ Summersgill, Lauren (2015). "Family Expressions of Pain in Postmortem Portraiture" (PDF). Studies in Visual Arts and Communication: An International Journal. 2 – via Journal On Arts.
  17. ^ a b "The Myth of the Stand Alone Corpse".
  18. ^ "Homepage - Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep". Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. Retrieved April 23, 2017.
  19. ^ Ruby, Jay. Secure the shadow.
  20. ^ Hafsteinsson, Sigurjón Baldur (2005). "History of Photography. Post-mortem and funeral photography in Iceland, History of Photography, 23:1, 49–54". History of Photography. 23: 49–54. doi:10.1080/03087298.1999.10443798.
  21. ^ Linkman, Audrey (1993). The Victorians: Photographic Portraits. London: Tauris Parke Books.
  22. ^ Linkman, Audrey (2006). "Taken from Life: Post-Mortem Portraiture in Britain 1860-1910". History of Photography: An International Quarterly. 30: 309–347.


  • Mord, Jack. (2014). Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Mourning Photography from The Thanatos Archive. Last Gasp Press.
  • Ruby, Jay. (1995). Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Boston: MIT Press.
  • Burns, Stanley B. (1990). Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America. Twelvetrees/Twin Palms Press.
  • Burns, Stanley B. and Elizabeth A. (2002). Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement in Memorial Photography American and European Traditions. Burns Archive Press.
  • Orlando, Mirko. (2010). Ripartire dagli addii: uno studio sulla fotografia post-mortem. Milano: MjM editore.
  • Orlando, Mirko. (2013). fotografia post mortem. Roma: Castelvecchi.
  • Vidor, Gian Marco.(2013). La photographie post-mortem dans l’Italie du XIXe et XXe siècle. Une introduction. In Anne Carol & Isabelle Renaudet 'La mort à l'oeuvre. Usages et représentations du cadavre dans l'art', Aix-en-Provence: Presses universitaires de Provence, 2013.
  • Audrey Linkman (2006) Taken from life: Post-mortem portraiture in Britain
  • History of Photography 1860–1910, 30:4, 309–347, DOI: 10.1080/03087298.2006.10443484

External links

Algor mortis

Algor mortis (Latin: algor—coldness; mortis—of death), the second stage of death, is the change in body temperature post mortem, until the ambient temperature is matched. This is generally a steady decline, although if the ambient temperature is above the body temperature (such as in a hot desert), the change in temperature will be positive, as the (relatively) cooler body acclimates to the warmer environment. External factors can have a significant influence.

The term was first used by Dowler in 1849. The first published measurements of the intervals of temperature after death were done by Dr John Davey in 1839.

Dead on arrival

Dead on arrival (DOA), also dead in the field and brought in dead (BID), indicates that a patient was found to be already clinically dead upon the arrival of professional medical assistance, often in the form of first responders such as emergency medical technicians, paramedics, or police.

In some jurisdictions, first responders must consult verbally with a physician before officially pronouncing a patient deceased, but once cardiopulmonary resuscitation is initiated, it must be continued until a physician can pronounce the patient dead.

Death hoax

A death hoax is a deliberate or confused report of someone's death that turns out to be incorrect and murder rumors. In some cases it might be because the person has intentionally faked death.

Death mask

A death mask is a likeness (typically in wax or plaster cast) of a person's face following death, often made by taking a cast or impression directly from the corpse. Death masks may be mementos of the dead, or be used for creation of portraits. Such casts obviate idealised representations by revealing the actual features. It is sometimes possible to identify portraits that have been painted from death masks, because of the characteristic slight distortions of the features caused by the weight of the plaster during the making of the mold.

The main purpose of the death mask from the Middle Ages until the 19th century was to serve as a model for sculptors in creating statues and busts of the deceased person. Not until the 1800s did such masks become valued for themselves.In other cultures a death mask may be a funeral mask, an image placed on the face of the deceased before burial rites, and normally buried with them. The best known of these are the masks used in ancient Egypt as part of the mummification process, such as Tutankhamun's mask, and those from Mycenaean Greece such as the Mask of Agamemnon.

In some European countries, it was common for death masks to be used as part of the effigy of the deceased, displayed at state funerals; the coffin portrait was an alternative. Mourning portraits were also painted, showing the subject lying in repose. During the 18th and 19th centuries masks were also used to permanently record the features of unknown corpses for purposes of identification. This function was later replaced by post-mortem photography.

In the cases of people whose faces were damaged by their death, it was common to take casts of their hands. An example of this occurred in the case of Thomas D'Arcy McGee, the Canadian statesman whose face was shattered by the bullet which assassinated him in 1868.

When taken from a living subject, such a cast is called a life mask. Proponents of phrenology used both death masks and life masks for pseudoscientific purposes.

Death messenger

Death messengers, in former times, were those who were dispatched to spread the news that an inhabitant of their city or village had died. They were to wear unadorned black and go door to door with the message, "You are asked to attend the funeral of the departed __________ at (time, date, and place)." This was all they were allowed to say, and were to move on to the next house immediately after uttering the announcement. This tradition persisted in some areas to as late as the mid-19th century.

Death rattle

Terminal respiratory secretions (or simply terminal secretions), known colloquially as a death rattle, are sounds often produced by someone who is near death as a result of fluids such as saliva and bronchial secretions accumulating in the throat and upper chest. Those who are dying may lose their ability to swallow and may have increased production of bronchial secretions, resulting in such an accumulation. Usually, two or three days earlier, the symptoms of approaching death can be observed as saliva accumulates in the throat, making it very difficult to take even a spoonful of water. Related symptoms can include shortness of breath and rapid chest movement. While death rattle is a strong indication that someone is near death, it can also be produced by other problems that cause interference with the swallowing reflex, such as brain injuries.It is sometimes misinterpreted as the sound of the person choking to death, or alternatively, that they are gargling.

Dignified death

Dignified death is a somewhat elusive concept often related to suicide. One factor that has been cited as a core component of dignified death is maintaining a sense of control. Another view is that a truly dignified death is an extension of a dignified life. There is some concern that assisted suicide does not guarantee a dignified death, since some patients may experience complications such as nausea and vomiting. There is some concern that age discrimination denies the elderly a dignified death.


In medicine, dysthanasia means "bad death" and is considered a common fault of modern medicine.Dysthanasia occurs when a person who is dying has their biological life extended through technological means without regard to the person's quality of life. Technologies such as an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, artificial ventilation, ventricular assist devices, and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation can extend the dying process.

Dysthanasia is a term generally used when a person is seen to be kept alive artificially in a condition where, otherwise, they cannot survive; sometimes for some sort of ulterior motive. The term was used frequently in the investigation into the death of Formula One driver Ayrton Senna in 1994.

Lazarus sign

The Lazarus sign or Lazarus reflex is a reflex movement in brain-dead or brainstem failure patients, which causes them to briefly raise their arms and drop them crossed on their chests (in a position similar to some Egyptian mummies). The phenomenon is named after the Biblical figure Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raised from the dead in the Gospel of John.


Megadeath (or megacorpse) is one million human deaths, usually caused by a nuclear explosion. The term was used by scientists and thinkers who strategized likely outcomes of all-out nuclear warfare.

Mourning portraits

A mourning portrait or deathbed portrait is a portrait of a person who has recently died, usually shown on their deathbed, or lying in repose, displayed for mourners. Though it seems like a morbid subject now, these were not rare in European homes of well-to-do people as a way of remembering and honoring the dead. Generally the name of the painter is unknown. Generally people were laid out in their best clothes with some sort of special headdress, and some sort of token in their hands. Today these portraits give insights into old funeral customs, but also various types of information regarding folk costumes. In the 19th century post-mortem photography continued the tradition.

Recent research on deathbed portraits, which can be found also in prints and photographs up to today, shows that they became popular after the Protestant Reformation but were never treasured as family heirlooms in the same way as other artworks and thus relatively few early examples such as this one have survived. As a continuous art form, laying out traditions did not go away and photography has continued to preserve the deathbed portrait, though such photos were meant for mourners and did not find their way into photo albums.

In the Netherlands, complicated wreaths of greens were placed around the heads of unmarried people, who were mostly children. In Dutch such a wreath is called a "hoedje" (little hat) and this is part of the general body decoration called "pelen". The word "pelen" is related to the English word "pall", as in "pallbearer", which in funeral contexts refers to the cloth (sometimes a flag) over the body or casket.

An example of this type of portrait is the Mourning portrait of K. Horvath-Stansith, née Kiss, a 1680s painting by an anonymous Baroque artist in the Slovak National Gallery.This painting shows a postmortem portrait of a woman from the Horvath-Stansith family, K. Horvath-Stansith. She appears to be lying on a bed, but her body has been specially prepared and she is lying not on a bed, but a prepared catafalque laid with a Kilim carpet and special red damask cushion. Her fingers have already discoloured and thread is wrapped around her thumbs. Theoretically, the location is her local church and this is how she looked during the funeral service. She is wearing the costume of the former Hungarian region of Levoča and the closefitting cap she has on is probably not the headgear she wore when she was alive.

Museum of Funeral Customs

The Museum of Funeral Customs was located at 1440 Monument Ave. in Springfield, Illinois, USA. It featured exhibits dealing with American funerary and mourning customs. The museum was near Oak Ridge Cemetery, the site of Abraham Lincoln's tomb. Collections at the museum included a re-created 1920s embalming room, coffins and funeral paraphernalia from various cultures and times, examples of post-mortem photography, and a scale model of Lincoln's funeral train. The museum hosted tours and special events and provided resources to scholars who are researching funeral customs. A gift shop provided books and funeral-related gifts, including coffin-shaped keychains and chocolates. The museum was closed in March 2009 due to poor attendance and handling of the museum's trust fund. The contents of the collection were transferred to the Kibbe Hancock Heritage Museum in Carthage, Illinois in February 2011.The home of the former museum reopened in March 2016 as the Springfield and Central Illinois African-American History Museum, a museum of the black heritage of central Illinois.


A necronym (from the Greek words νεκρός, nekros, "dead" and ὄνομα ónoma, "name") is a reference to, or name of, a person who has died. Many cultures have taboos and traditions associated with referring to such a person. These vary from the extreme of never again speaking the person's real name, often using some circumlocution instead, to the opposite extreme of commemorating it incessantly by naming other things or people after the deceased.

For instance, in some cultures it is common for a newborn child to receive the name (a necronym) of a relative who has recently died, while in others to reuse such a name would be considered extremely inappropriate or even forbidden. While this varies from culture to culture, the use of necronyms is quite common.


Necrophobia is a specific phobia which is the irrational fear of dead things (e.g., corpses) as well as things associated with death (e.g., coffins, tombstones, funerals, cemeteries). With all types of emotions, obsession with death becomes evident in both fascination and objectification. In a cultural sense, necrophobia may also be used to mean a fear of the dead by a cultural group, e.g., a belief that the spirits of the dead will return to haunt the living.Symptoms include: shortness of breath, rapid breathing, irregular heartbeat, sweating, dry mouth and shaking, feeling sick and uneasy, psychological instability, and an altogether feeling of dread and trepidation. The sufferer may feel this phobia all the time. The sufferer may also experience this sensation when something triggers the fear, like a close encounter with a dead animal or the funeral of a loved one or friend. The fear may have developed when a person witnessed a death, or was forced to attend a funeral as a child. Some people experience this after viewing frightening media.The fear can manifest itself as a serious condition. Treatment options include medication and therapy.The word necrophobia is derived from the Greek nekros (νεκρός) for "corpse" and the Greek phobos (φόβος) for "fear".

Pallor mortis

Pallor mortis (Latin: pallor "paleness", mortis "of death"), the first stage of death, is an after-death paleness that occurs in those with light/white skin.

Post-mortem interval

Post-mortem interval (PMI) is the time that has elapsed since a person has died. If the time in question is not known, a number of medical/scientific techniques are used to determine it. This also can refer to the stage of decomposition of the body.


Promession is an idea of how to dispose human remains by way of freeze drying. The concept of promession was developed by Swedish biologist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, who derived the name from the Italian word for "promise" (promessa). She founded Promessa Organic AB in 1997 to commercially pursue her idea. The company was liquidated 2015 without being able to produce a functioning facility. The idea of promession is questioned and not a functional method according to critics.


Skeletonization refers to the final stage of decomposition, during which the last vestiges of the soft tissues of a corpse or carcass have decayed or dried to the point that the skeleton is exposed. By the end of the skeletonization process, all soft tissue will have been eliminated, leaving only disarticulated bones. In a temperate climate, it usually requires three weeks to several years for a body to completely decompose into a skeleton, depending on factors such as temperature, humidity, presence of insects, and submergence in a substrate such as water. In tropical climates, skeletonization can occur in weeks, while in tundra areas, skeletonization may take years or may never occur, if subzero temperatures persist. Natural embalming processes in peat bogs or salt deserts can delay the process indefinitely, sometimes resulting in natural mummification.The rate of skeletonization and the present condition of a corpse or carcass can be used to determine the time of death.After skeletonization, if scavenging animals do not destroy or remove the bones, acids in many fertile soils take about 20 years to completely dissolve the skeleton of mid- to large-size mammals, such as humans, leaving no trace of the organism. In neutral-pH soil or sand, the skeleton can persist for hundreds of years before it finally disintegrates. Alternately, especially in very fine, dry, salty, anoxic, or mildly alkaline soils, bones may undergo fossilization, converting into minerals that may persist indefinitely.

Death and mortality in art

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