Photos to die for… no, really

Fads come and go, some more weird than others, but I’m glad to say I missed the one involving dead bodies.

A macabre insight into photographic portraiture can now be seen on photo sharing website Reddit, which uploaded some quite spooky pictures recently.

It seems that early daguerreotype photographs started a craze in some quarters to capture everything for posterity (and you thought today’s lot were bad!)

A dead man is positioned for his portait

A dead man is positioned for his portait

When a loved one died in the late 19th century it was common for portraits to be commissioned of the deceased, but with technology came a more affordable, if downright creepy, solution. With photography, now everyone could have a keepsake of their dearly departed.

Known as post-mortem photography, some corpses were snapped in their coffins alongside funeral attendees.

However in some cases the dead were made to appear as though they were asleep or even life-like as they were positioned next to living family members.

It was an age of high infant mortality rates – and children were often shown in repose in a crib or on a couch, while adults were posed in chairs. Just to add my own tuppence worth, it would be interesting to know how photographers combated rigor mortis when they were posing their late clients.

A dead woman who  appears to be alive

A dead woman who appears to be alive

Not content with capturing the dead, sometimes it was felt necessary to make it seem as though the subject was still alive, with the result that eyes were propped open or pupils painted on to the photo later. A rosy tint was also sometimes added to the faces on the prints to give the impression of vitality.

As photographs became more commonplace, thankfully, this practice fell out of fashion.

There are those who manage to look drop dead gorgeous when a camera snaps them. I can’t say the same for these morbid relics, though…

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About historywithatwist

I am an Associate Editor with a national newspaper. I have a keen interest in history and in writing. I have published one novel, Tan, and am currently working on a sequel
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8 Responses to Photos to die for… no, really

  1. Fascinating, David. When I was growing up, a neighbor girl (my age – 4 yrs old – in 1952) was killed by a passing car. Her parents had a picture taken of her in the casket. They displayed it with all the other family pictures in their living room. I was fascinated by this picture. Perhaps because she was my age. Perhaps because I’d never seen a dead person before. It’s the only such picture I’ve seen from that era.

    As I look at the picture of the woman and her family, I notice that the furniture behind them is draped with a sheet. I expect there as a mirror on that sideboard. In Victorian times, mirrors in a house were draped after a death to prevent spirits either from leaving or entering the house. I’m not sure which direction they were protecting from.

    • I never noticed the sheet, Carol. I have come across another set of photos in which a sheet is actually draped over the mother when a child’s portrait is being taken. Apparently, the idea was for the mother to calm the child to sit still for the photo without actually appearing in it herself.

      With regards to your story about the picture of the dead child in the family living room, I know one person (30-something) who claims to keep a photograph of her dead relative displayed on the wall of her house. I guess some practices still linger, no matter how unusual…

  2. I find it sad and poignant, not something funny. They wanted something to hold onto. We take photos for granted, but for them it was an expensive undertaking and many people did not have photos while alive. Once their dear one departed, it was the last chance for them to hold onto an image. The images touch me greatly and brought tears to my eyes. As a mother who held her dead infant for a photo, it was the only time he didn’t have tubes and lines taped all over him.

    • …Then you have more right than any of us, Clare, to comment. My intention was not to poke fun but to highlight an unusual practice. Your heartfelt comments underline the tragedy behind these pictures

  3. carolervin says:

    The photos of the departed, posed as though alive with family members seem particularly odd, but maybe people then thought photos more comforting than we do today. In my work-in-progress, a 1915 character remarks that she has a photo of her husband in his coffin. She says it’s a cold comfort!
    Interesting post, great photos!

  4. This is a very interesting post. For some reason I don’t find the photo of the family posing with their departed loved one odd at all. The photograph is quite loving, with the parents hands holding on to their loved one. I can see where a photograph such as this could bring future comfort to the parents.
    I remember in my younger years that if there was a death in the family mirrors were covered. I was born in 1953 so it’s not that long ago that this practice was still done. All the curtains in the house were closed too and the window in the room where the deceased lay was always kept open, ‘to let the spirit go free’, I was told.

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