Weird History
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6 Sad And Strange Facts About Victorian Death Photography

Updated March 16, 2021 759.6k views6 items

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.

When a loved one died, however, families came up with the money to have funeral portraits taken. For many, this would be the only photo they would ever have to remember a loved one.

  • People Would Have Photos Taken Of Their Loved Ones In Caskets

    The earliest version of Victorian death photos - or post-mortem photography - was simple: the deceased person was photographed in a casket, usually in the parlor of their home before loved ones came to pay their respects.

    These images were a simple way of remembering those who had passed and served as a form of memento mori, a popular Latin phrase meaning "remember that you will die."

  • Mothers Would Hide Behind A Sheet While Holding Their Deceased Children

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    These photos, called "hidden mother" pictures, were taken because the mother didn't want to be seen - she simply hid behind a sheet and held the baby in her arms. In some cases, the baby photographed wasn't deceased, the mother was simply there to hold them still.

    As a result, researchers often have a hard time determining which of these photos feature deceased babies.

  • Artists Would Paint Open Eyes Over The Deceased's Eyelids

    Photo: Boatswain88 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    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 deceased as living. 

  • Special Stands And Chairs Often Held Up The Bodies Of The Deceased

    Photo: Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In order to make the deceased look so full of life that they could be standing, various types of seating were used, along with special stands

    These stands would be disguised by curtains or by the body of the deceased person