Monday, September 8, 2008

Postmortem Photography - A Lost Art?

In the early nineteenth century, as the medium of photography was coming into existence, postmortem photographs began to appear. These portraitures, taken soon after death were cherished keepsakes for families to possess. Usually it was the only photograph ever taken of the individual, young or old.

Even before photography existed, paintings of the deceased occurred. In the sixteenth century paintings of a recently deceased would be made of the person, usually a nun or clergyman, sitting up or lying in bed. This influence is seen in some of the early photographs, depicting their subjects also propped up in bed or in a chair.

The other customary paintings in the early nineteenth century were of young children whom had died. These paintings actually depicted the child alive, but a symbol of some sort was included to indicate that the child had in fact died. Examples of symbols used include a rose held downward, or a broken stem. Sometimes a prominent watch with the time of death was included.

As photography evolved, photos rather than paintings of the deceased became important. Interestingly, as the cost of photography lessened, the price for a postmortem photograph actually increased, indicating it's value, as well as popularity.

Most of the postmortem photos are of children, secondary to the high infant mortality rates. The earlier photos often depict the subject in a sleeping posture, as if to depict the impermanence of sleep, rather than the finality of death. As the role of the undertaker became more central to the dying process, more elaborate photo's of coffins and flowers ensued.

The official practice of postmortem photography began to disappear in the early twentieth century. Many reasons for this exist. The photograph itself lost some of its prominence as the snapshot was developed and photo's became more common place. Death also became more scarce, and our societies began to shun any reminders mortality.

The art of postmortem photography is all but gone. The palliative care movement that is slowly bringing the acceptance of death back into society's focus, is also helping to spur a resurgence in portraiture's of deceased infants. The current name now is "remembrance photography".

A very big difference is that remembrance photography is generally donated. Unlike the high prices of postmortem photography, today's tribute is a gift to families to help in the grieving process. One terrific organization that connects families with photographers is "Now I lay Me Down to Sleep". This current photo is taken from their gallery, full of tributes to children.

This picture of James Dennis isn't much different than photos taken almost 100 years ago. Spend some time reflecting on both genres, there's a great sight on Flikr with a large collection of postmortem photos and the Now I lay Me Down to Sleep gallery.

Reference: Memento Mori: Death and Photography in 19th Century America by Dan Meinwald

2 Responses to “Postmortem Photography - A Lost Art?”

Drew Rosielle MD said...
September 9, 2008 at 8:56 PM

Amy I'm really struck by the idea of showing a watch with the time of death. It seems very odd at first - the more contemporary practice - not that we commemorate the dead in this way anymore - would be to put the date of death.

But noting the time - the hour - of death - there is something much more intimate about this...the abruptness of it...of the moment of death, when the child was taken away forever - jeez that's much more personal and 'close' than the date.

Do you know any more about this practice that you can share?

Pdoer1 said...
February 10, 2012 at 2:28 PM

I am currently working at a museum, and today came across what I think might be a postmortem photograph. I would love for a second opinion- I currently have the photo posted  on my blog, just scroll down a bit and you cant miss it! Thanks!