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Home » Public Programs » Online Exhibits » “So Once Were We”: Death in Early America » Post-Mortem Photography: An Overview

Post-Mortem Photography: An Overview

Post-mortem photographs are images taken of people after death.  Memorial and post-mortem photography was common from the birth of the daguerreotype in 1839 to the 1930s.  Deaths were frequent in the 19th and early 20th centuries and many people – especially children – had no photograph taken of them while living.  Post-mortem photography allowed people to have an image of their deceased family members and they used them to remember and mourn loved ones.

Attitudes toward post-mortem photography have changed as attitudes toward death have changed.  Americans’ comfort with corpses decreased as the funeral industry and government legislation removed post-mortem care from family members, and as hygiene and modern medicine helped people live longer.

The roots of memorial photography are partly in the European tradition of painted miniatures.  Small portraits of the deceased were made into necklaces or pins.  Often hidden beneath clothing, these personal images allowed the wearer to grieve or to remember absent family or friends. With the technological innovation of photography in the 1830s, the bereaved were able to acquire an actual likeness of their mother, father, brother, sister, friend, etc. rather than an artist’s rendering.

Unless otherwise specified, the examples below belong to the Mark A. Anderson Collection of Post-Mortem Photography.

Montgomery P. Simons, [unknown child holding flowers], hand-colored stereoscopic ambrotype in a Mascher case, Philadelphia: ca. 1859. When viewed through the eye holes of the “Mascher case,” the child is seen in 3-dimensions.

Harvey Cook Jackson, [young woman in her casket], silver gelatin print, Detroit: ca. 1920s.
H.C. Jackson was the first African American photographer to establish a photo studio in Detroit.

Post-mortem photos sometimes show deceased children with their parents or siblings.  When family members viewed such images, they were able to see their personal connection to their loved one.

Left: [Young Girl and her mother], carte-de-visite: ca. 1860s.

Right: A. D. Webster, [young girl and her sister], carte-de-visite, Constantine, Michigan: ca. 1860s-1870s.

[Three infants], cabinet card: ca. 1880s-1890s.

[Samuel and Georgie Marquett], hand-colored tintype: ca. 1850s-1860s.

[Boy with dog], daguerreotype: ca. 1850s.
Pets are often recognized as members of the family. The deep emotional attachment felt by humans toward animals may be reflected in memorial photographs depicting persons lovingly – and sorrowfully – posing with their deceased loved ones.

Photographers sometimes posed deceased children with toys or other personal effects.

John Cadwallader, [child holding his/her shoe], carte-de-visite, Toledo, Ohio: ca. 1880s-1890s.

J. W. Black & Company, [young girl in a buggy], Boston: ca. 1880s-1896.

Platt Photo Company, [young woman in a coffin], carte-de-visite, Ohio: ca. 1870s.

[Child in a buggy, with lantern]: ca. 1870s.

Post-mortem photographs and other tangible objects associated with the deceased helped to keep their memory vivid and emotionally present. Two exposures of this photograph of a young child were preserved along with one of the lanterns from the child’s buggy.

[Group of 41 men posing with the deceased], silver gelatin print: ca. 1900s-1920s.
Open-casket group photographs were often taken as part of the funeral and burial services in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.  They were frequently taken in an indoor viewing area, outside the church where the funeral service was held, or at the burying place.

[Group of 47 men, women, and children posing with the deceased], silver gelatin print, Toledo, Ohio: ca. 1910s.

[Group of six young men, standing and saluting beside deceased fellow Boy Scout], silver gelatin print: ca. 1920s-1930s.

W. Jakubowski & Company, and Joseph Ziawinski, [wedding and post-mortem photographs of an unidentified woman], silver gelatin prints, Detroit: ca. 1920-1931.

These are two examples of six wedding and post-mortem photographs of an unidentified young woman. One of the wedding prints can be seen situated beneath the casket, among the floral arrangements.