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Photographs of Dead People Who Look Alive

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.

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  1. Karen Gross

    On October 1, 2009 at 1:31 pm


    Wow! Creepy! I almost didn’t click here, but curiousity got the better of me. My dad still takes pictures at funerals, I’ve always thought it was horribly morbid.

    If you think of how much expense we lavish on our loved ones, for the mortician to get the body to look respectable for viewing – I’ve heard of missing fingers sculpted from wax – and the embalming process so we can have more time to plan the funeral, and then a worm-proof casket – we really do try to cover up death.

  2. lillyrose

    On October 5, 2009 at 5:00 am


    Really really great article. Lots of interesting information, I liked a lot. Yes this is a horrific thought in this day and age but I think for the time it was a popular practice it would have been a great comfort to many! Well done!

  3. sugarty

    On December 4, 2009 at 11:21 am


    Omg this gives me chills, interesting but creepy. Everything was fine up until i saw the dead boys hands around his sister scary!

  4. vaughanh

    On March 13, 2010 at 7:42 am


    Very interesting piece, the people in the pictures really do look alive, especially the first one!

  5. Tiffany J L Alfonso

    On May 23, 2010 at 10:16 am


    This article is a good read – I have been looking at post-mortem photographs in the past few months. Sure, they seem creepy, but many of them are just beautiful in any way.

    I even wrote an article myself on this site on post-mortem photography and how it correlates with the bad luck superstition of putting shoes on the table, which foretells death. Please check this one out if you can.

  6. athena goodlight

    On June 28, 2010 at 9:25 pm


    Amazing write up! This became our conversational piece for the day.

  7. Susan Jimenez

    On September 5, 2010 at 3:07 pm


    Very interesting!! I have been looking at sites like this one for about a week now, and it is very artistic. Although , my husband thinks that I am morbid, and , in his words, gross. I find that postmortem photography is very interesting, and in some cases almost beautiful!

  8. Rob

    On October 12, 2010 at 12:49 pm


    Oh pleeeease tell me that in the picture of the little boy and girl, that the girl isn’t alive…with her dead brother’s hand on her shoulder! I am now totally creeped out.

  9. David Gravely

    On April 11, 2011 at 2:21 pm


    We should be mature enough to view these traditions from the point of view of a time that was not our own. Although… the photograph of the girl with her dead brothers arm around her was a little much, I will admit.

  10. Steve

    On May 27, 2011 at 11:04 am


    Is the arm around the little girl really that “gross”? How many hug, kiss an embrace their deceased family members at the funeral homes? Justr because someone passes away, does not mean they any any less the person they were. A little colder and certainly not responsive, but no different than the person you once hald close and kissed.

  11. Paul Griffiths

    On July 6, 2011 at 9:42 am


    Yeah, when I first saw the arm picture, I thought it was creepy because the girl, to me, looked uncomfortable with it. But now I don’t think she is… perhaps we’re projecting our own emotions onto her. She’s certainly not reacting to the body in the way a modern person would.

    When I did the research for this article, I definitely became more sympathetic of the practice when I came to realize what the people were thinking and what the mores were at that time. Death is natural… unless doctors come up with some medical marvels soon, we’ll all have to deal with it. Perhaps we’re the ones who are odd.

  12. Evelyn Duncan

    On December 19, 2011 at 6:17 pm


    The photograph of the two children intrigues me. Who were these children; what did he die of; did she live long enough to have children of her own, and what did she remember of her brother?

  13. Raymond

    On May 4, 2012 at 12:48 pm


    Hello,

    This is some nice postmortem photographs from past to present day:

    http://edencash.forumactif.net/t785-montrer-la-mort-ou-la-cacher-photographies-funeraires#8322

    Raymond

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