We live in the age of the self-image. Phone cameras mean that more or less everyone has the means of taking photographs at any time, anywhere. The rise of the selfie and social media has allowed people in love with themselves to ensure that hundreds, if not thousands, of images now exist of some people – and even the less egocentric will probably have had their lives chronicled from birth by the camera.
Back in the late 19th century, things were rather different. Photography was expensive, time-consuming at involved bulky equipment. Many people would never be photographed at all, and if they were, it might only be once. And that one time might be a post-mortem photograph.
When a loved-one dies, it seems natural that the remaining family might want to look back on photographs of that person as a reminder and keepsake of their life. And if they’ve never been photographed while alive, why let that get in the way? As bizarre as it seems now, it was not especially unusual for family members to pose alongside the recently deceased for what would now be seen as a ghoulish snapshot (and possibly involve an investigation by the authorities, although the practice still exists to a degree, with mothers posing for photographs with stillborn babies). Naturally, this only worked if the dead family member was relatively well-preserved and undamaged. The corpse would usually be posed in a natural manner – while some post-mortem photographs include the coffin and others do little do disguise the fact that the subject is dead, most aim to create the illusion of the deceased still being alive – after all, these images were supposed to be a memory of the living person, not a reminder of their death. What’s perhaps most disturbing about these images when seen now is just how many feature children.
The popularity of these photographs declined as cameras became smaller, cheaper and easier to use, allowing people to take their own photographs of living loved ones. Selfie culture and attention hungry social media types might yet bring it back – after all, if you are chronicling every aspect of your life, why wouldn’t death be a part of it?
To complicate things for the connoisseur of the macabre, the long exposure times involved in Victorian photography means that many of the subjects look unnaturally stiff, and so it sometimes becomes hard to differentiate between a corpse and someone who has simply been standing very still for a long time. But there are many undoubted post-mortem photographs out there to be amazed by. Here are just a few.