The Victorian era is remembered for its many weird and morbid traditions, including post-mortem photography. Yes, the time period that created elaborate mourning rituals also popularized after-death portraits. The medium of modern photography was invented and refined during the 19th century. People who could afford to have family portraits taken did so, but this remained an expensive endeavor, one out of reach for most people. However, when a loved one died, families came up with the money to have funeral portraits taken. For many, these would be the only photo they would ever have to remember a loved one by.
People Would Have Photos Taken of Their Loved Ones in Caskets
The earliest Victorian death photos were simple: the dead person was photographed in a casket, usually in the parlor of their home before loved ones came to pay their respects. These were a simple way of remembering the deceased, and served as a form of memento mori, a popular Latin phrase of the time that translates to "remember that you will die."
Mothers Would Hide Behind a Sheet While Holding Their Deceased Children
These photos, called "hidden mother" pictures, were taken because the mother didn't want to be seen. So she simply hid behind a sheet and held the baby in her arms. (In some cases, the baby photographed isn't dead, the mother is simply there to hold him or her still, so researchers often have a hard time determining which of these photos feature deceased babies.)
Artists Would Paint Open Eyeballs on the Dead's Eyelids
Later in the Victorian period, photography advanced to the point where simple, Photoshop-like touches were possible. After the picture was developed, things like rosy cheeks could be painted on to make the deceased look more lifelike. Open eyes were painted onto the photo negative to further disguise the dead as the living.
Stands Sometimes Held Up the Bodies of the Deceased
In order to make the deceased look so full of life that he or she was standing, special stands were used. These stands would be disguised by curtains and by the body of the deceased person itself. In this case, you can see the base of the stand behind the boy's feet, and someone or something is holding his head straight from behind the curtain.
Parents Would Pose Alongside Their Dead Children
Childhoood death rates during the Victorian era were very high, thanks to diseases like smallpox and tuberculosis. Many children did not make it to the age of three. Sadly, the only photo taken of an entire family might be one with the youngest in a coffin.
Brothers and Sisters Would Pose Alongside Their Deceased Siblings
In some cases, living siblings would be made to pose alongside their recently deceased brothers and sisters. This particular picture has three living brothers and one sister lined up, with their dead sister on the very left. This type of family portrait would be displayed in the parlor of the home, so that everyone would remember the deceased youngest.
Props Were Used to Help Remember the Dead
During the later part of the Victorian period, the deceased were posed with some of their favorite items. Young girls were photographed alongside dolls, while adults were posed with other things, like books, letters, or flowers. This was done to help the living remember their dead loved ones and their personality, profession, or hobbies,
Photos of Deceased Infants Were Unfortunately Popular
The mortality rate for infants was extremely high during the Victorian period due to the lack of penicillin and vaccinations. Because of this, there are a lot of surviving post mortem photographs of deceased infants. These pictures helped the parents of these children remember their very short lives.