The History of Funeral Photography
The Beginnings of Funeral Photography
Funeral photography, also called post-mortem photography (meaning “after death”) has been around for centuries in one form or another. Before the camera was invented, families would have their loved one’s portrait painted, or have a traditional miniature painted. These small paintings were frequently made into a necklace or a broach, usually hidden in the folds of clothing, which allowed the wearer to grieve for their lost relative and to remember them by. Quite often those paintings were reserved for the upper class who could afford such a luxury, including monarchs and clergymen.
Other small items and trinkets were made for grieving, called memento mori (meaning "remember, you must die"), which came in many forms. One popular item in Victorian times were lockets of hair made from the deceased, referred to as mourning jewelry. Necklaces, earrings, broaches, rings, watch chains, and even intricate framed floral wreaths were made from hair. These were kept as keepsakes to wear, display in their homes, and even sent to friends and relatives to share in their sorrow as well.
With the invention of the camera and the daguerreotype photographs, more lower-class people had access to portraits of family members since the photos were more affordable. People had the ability to have an actual photograph taken of their family member, not just an artist’s likeness. Since there were many outbreaks of cholera and tuberculosis, and infant mortality was high due to poor hygiene and lack of medical advances, many people, especially small children, were photographed after death, since there wasn’t an opportunity to take any beforehand.
This was not considered offensive or taboo, but was thought of as comforting, it made things easier for people to cope with the loss. These photographs served as keepsakes to remember the deceased and to come to terms with death.
How Photos Evolved
Funeral photography became very popular for over 100 years, starting in 1839 with the daguerreotypes, detailed pictures with polished silver on glass, being the first commercially feasible form of photographic reproduction. This was a luxury at first, but still cheaper than having a portrait painted. It’s possible that many daguerreotype portraits were post-mortem, especially of infants and young children, since they were probably the only photos taken of them.
Tintypes were popular from the mid-1850s all the way to the mid-1900s. They were quicker to develop and hand to the buyer right away, plus they were pretty sturdy and didn’t need to be set to glass.
Carte-de-Visite photographs were also popular from the late 1850s to the early 1900s. In the early 1870s, the cabinet card began to replace the carte-de-visite. Both were albumen prints, but the cabinet card was larger and could allow multiple prints to be made from a single negative, which meant that several copies could be made and sent to relatives.
From about 1906 to the early 1920s was the idea of the postcard with a real photograph. Thanks to Kodak for pioneering the type of film and the method used for printing, these postcards were a popular way to send photos of the deceased to distant relatives since the card had a pre-printed back for mailing.
Silver gelatin prints are made from negative film images, starting around the 1870s, all the way to present day (black and white film). The film is processed in a dark room, exposed onto special paper, developed with chemicals, then transferred to paper.
Posing for Photos
Before abundant hospitals and funeral homes became part of our current society, people had a large part in caring for the deceased and to help prepare the body. In addition to the funerary photography, families participated in more personal acts like washing and dressing the body, watching over them in their homes, and being by their side all the way to the grave site. Hence the “parlor room”, usually a private sitting room in the front of an older home for guests to sit, or for the viewing of the deceased and for mourners to pay their respects. This ‘parlor’ was later referred to as a funeral parlor, or currently called a funeral home. And because people typically died in their homes, photographers were able to make house calls to take these special photographs.
As for poses in the photographs, it was common for about the first forty years to show the deceased in a laying position with closed eyes, called the “Last Sleep.” Most photos were shown on a bed, or even in a coffin, but some adults were shown sitting in a chair, with a book or object in their hands. In the 1800s, it was not uncommon to have an infant or small child placed in their mother’s arms to keep them upright.
Around the turn of the century, photographers began to pose children by having their parents dress them up, fix their hair, or even have their eyes open. Sometimes family members would place special items by the child to symbolize death, such as a drum, an upside-down watch, a dead bird, an hourglass, drooping flowers, or three outstretched fingers (representing the Holy Trinity).
Funeral tableaux, (meaning a depiction or photograph of a funeral), became common in the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Photographs of the family around the open casket were taken as part of the funeral services, usually in an indoor viewing area, where the funeral service was held, or next to the grave site. Many times it was the first and only time a photo was taken of younger children because there wasn’t a chance to do it earlier.
In the mid-1900s, hospitals flourished with the advancements in medicine and health care, governmental legislation removed the option of post-mortem care by families, and the popularity of funeral homes with their dedicated staff of morticians prospered. This made Americans less responsible for caring for the bodies, and become more uncomfortable with having to deal with death itself. And with the progression of photography and easier access to cameras, the need for funeral photography diminished as well.
In America, funeral photography became more of a private practice from about the 1930s to the 1960s and beyond. The family and friends were photographed surrounding the deceased in their coffin, sometimes with the body visible in the photo. This practice was also very common for the rural and urban lower- and middle-class families of ethnic minorities. I believe it’s mostly because other cultures around the world still accept death as part of life and respect their loved ones with compassion, understanding, and love. Some even have festivals to honor and remember their lineage of ancestors. Photographs of very holy people in their coffins are still shared among certain religions, such as the Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Christians, but we can talk about relics and reliquaries another time. :-)
Nowadays, we acknowledge death only when necessary, and talking about the subject of death is taboo and generally makes many people uncomfortable. We hide death away as quickly as possible with hospitals and funeral homes, are overwhelmed with sadness, and deal with the stress of legal formalities like wills, insurance, and funeral arrangements. We are reluctant to talk about our feelings of grief and loneliness, and try to fake an outward appearance of being okay and getting on with life.
As noted above, post-mortem photography is still practiced in America, now more so among women who have experienced stillbirths, beautifully memorialized through a group called "Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep". This photography helps enable the parents to celebrate their infants how they wanted to, and how they wished to remember them.
Even if these photographs seem unsettling or morbid, it's important to remember why they were done years ago. The Victorians didn't view death as weird and creepy, but as something that was ordinary and ever-present. They saw this type of funeral photography as a form of remembrance to help keep alive their relationship with the departed. The practice of post-mortem photography still continues as a regular part of memorial services in other parts of the world, and these touching tributes to the deceased could perhaps lead our own society to accept how we approach dying and death as a normal part of our lives.
References and further reading...
All photos for this article were provided by Nikki Kellogg.