Postmortem photography would be a huge taboo in today’s society, but in Victorian times it was commonplace and almost an art form.
The above photograph of Jeanette Glackmeyer was taken around 1870. She was about 14 years old at the time, and appears to be an attractive and studious young lady. If you hadn’t read the title of the article, you would probably never, ever have guessed that she is dead. Indeed, Jeanette had been dead for 9 days when this photograph was taken. The picture, along with thousands like it, were sitting on mantelpieces all over America and Europe in the late 1800’s.
Victorian society was one in which death was a part of everyday life, at least compared to modern times. Infant mortality rates were extremely high, hospital care was so poor that it was often better avoided, and before the use of antibiotics, infections and illnesses which could be treated easily today were death warrants. People often never got the chance to say goodbye, or in the cases of young children, even to say hello.
At that time, of course, photography was in its infancy and photographers were few and far between. Wealthy people would have paintings of themselves made, but when a poor or middle class person died, there was often no visual record whatsoever to leave behind for loved ones unless something was done immediately. In addition, the early photographic process required the subject to remain still for a long length of time – much more appropriate to postmortem. Therefore, because of the unique circumstances, beliefs, and technology of this period in history, photographs of the dead became very popular keepsakes.
The quality of these pictures can vary widely due to the relative skill of the photographer and the level of decomposition in the body. Jeanette is an example of a good photo. Inferior pictures look grotesque with obvious signs of decay, very clear tell-tale signs of straps or supports used to hold the body in place, and/or strange facial expressions.
The bodies were usually photographed in a reclining position and made to look as though the person were sleeping. Some were photographed sitting in a chair and were held upright using belts, which are visible in many such pictures. Since the eyes are the first area of a body to decompose, the eyelids were often sown shut and the detail of the eye painted in to make the person seem awake and alert. Some of the photographers were wonderful artists, and could really make a person seem alive with this technique.
Other postmortem photographs were even of people who were standing, like the two below. The woman in the left picture appears alive at first glance, just with a very rigid posture. However, when you look more closely you can also see that the right leg is hanging off the ground, since she is being held up by a stand (the base of which is partly visible next to her left foot). In the photo on the right, the sister is posed next to her dead brother. The dead were often posed with surviving family members in this way. Parents holding dead babies were an especially common motif.
After 1900, photography for the living grew easier, cheaper, and much more commonplace. Attitudes towards death began to change, and the practice died out. However, there were large amounts of such mementos taken and they are still not hard to find.
It is estimated that up to one third of all photos taken during this period in history were of the dead. If you see a portrait from that time, especially of a child or an individual who is not of the upper class, take a close look and make sure they are really alive.