In the 19th century, early death was much more common and people knew how to live with this.
History has bequeathed us numerous daguerreotypes of deceased children, adults and, most poignantly, parents holding their lifeless children as of groups of stone-faced mourners look on.
These death portraits, especially those of a deceased child, was a memorial for the remaining family members. Many believed that the daguerreotype captured the essence of a person’s soul and, more than memory, the haunting accuracy of a photograph was a touching convention of bringing a dead child back to life.
It should be noted that post-mortem photography had its origins in post-mortem paintings. Although daguerreotypes quickly established their own perspective of death, it was clearly an adoption of an earlier custom. These paintings had began to appear in the United States in the early 19th century, partly as a consequence of the eroding of Puritan traditions that rejected “graven images,” and partly because of a growing tendency to sentimentalize death.
A significant number of death photographs are not only of the dead, but also focus on the living mourners. This trend began to go hand in hand with photos of the deceased and soon photographs that portrayed the process of mourning itself became a popular custom as well.
Post-Mortem photography peaked in popularity by the close of the 19th century and died out as “snapshot” photography became more ubiquitous. The practice has no died out entirely, as formal memorial portraits were still being produced well into the 21st century.
Most particularly, itt is still practiced in some areas of Eastern Europe. Photographs, especially depicting persons who were considered to be very holy lying in their coffins, are still circulated among faithful Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians.
Perhaps one of the largest Post-Mortem Photography collections is housed in The Burns Archive. The cornerstone of The Burns Archive is its unparalleled collection of early medical photography, but it is also renowned for its iconic images depicting the darker side of life.
With thanks to American Daguerreotypes
Here is A Video Collection Of Post-Mortem Photography From The Victorian Era: