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Postmortem Photos

by Letha Berry (09/13/08).
This is a family photo of a cousin who died at age 19.

I grew up in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and the practice of taking postmortem photographs was a normal occurrence. After moving and marrying someone who was raised in a large city I became aware that what I had been taught as a life-affirming practice was viewed as macabre and just plain creepy by many. I have often tried to explain to my friends that rather than macabre these photos are a remembrance and an affirmation that the loved one had indeed lived and was a remembrance of them. I treasure the pictures I have of my parents and other family members that patiently wait for our reunion.

During the Victorian Era postmortem pictures generally showed the body in a coffin or propped up in a lifelike pose. To achieve a more life like look either the eyes of the deceased would be left open, or the image could be doctored to make it appear the eyes were open. Photographs of children frequently were posed as if they were asleep and often toys or dolls were included. Infants often are shown in the arms of the mother. It is a sad fact that one out of every twenty babies born would die before their first birthday. Images of the deceased baby were very important mementos and affirmed that the child had indeed lived and was remembered. Photographs of deceased loved one were frequently displayed in the home or in a locket that would be worn by the mother. Victorians viewed death as a restful sleep and these photographs were a important part of the Victorian mourning and memorializing process. Victorians did not fear death as they viewed it as a temporary absence from their loved one. They did however fear that they would not have a proper mourning. The CDV at the right is from my personal collection. The baby appears to be about 6 months old.

These photos might well be the only image a family had of a deceased loved one. After the Carte de Visite was invented multiple prints could be made from a single negative. This allowed images to be sent to distant relatives who may not have had time due to distance to reach the loved one prior to death and these images were treasured remembrances.

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