Postmortem photos are not something we talk about often. They were however quite popular in the past. Those unique pictures can add spice to the family narrative, so read more to find out how to identify a postmortem photo of the past!
Halloween season might be the perfect time to talk about the interesting topic of photographing the dead. I remember the first time I saw a picture of someone’s dead loved one. I was “creeped out” as my kids like to say. I thought it was such a weird thing to do. I did not realize this was a common occurrence in the Victorian past of America and Europe. Postmortem photos, also known as memento mori, were a way to memorialize and remember loved ones who had recently passed away.
The History of Postmortem Photos
The practice of postmortem photography was considered normal. Death was common in the homes of our ancestors. In 1850, the average life expectancy at birth was 38.9 years in the United States and the infant mortality rate was 217.4 per 1,000 births. Photographing a dead loved one helped families with the grieving process.
Postmortem photographs have likely been around since the start of photography with the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839. Because these photos were considered a specialty, they were more expensive. Floyd and Marion Rinhart cited fees for postmortem daguerreotypes as high as $75.00. This would have been a very high price for the mid-nineteenth century.
To generate more business, professional photographers advertised they would take postmortem photos. Grieving families could have these photos taken at their home or other location. Because embalming was not a common practice until the Civil War Era, photographers would need to show up in a timely manner. When embalming was not available, the dead would often be placed on a board with a bucket of ice underneath to preserve the body for longer.
Spotting a Postmortem Photo
These professionals would photograph deceased individuals in many unique ways. One such way was to gather the family around the dead person for one last family photo. In cases of small children, the deceased child would often be laid across the lap of their mother, father, or older sibling. The parent’s expression of grief or sadness may be an indication that the photo is one of a deceased child.
These interesting photographs can be easily spotted if the individual is in a coffin. However, you can also spot them by the unusual position of the body. Depending on the time and circumstances of the death, the deceased might have an odd or unnatural position or appearance. Another way to pick out a postmortem photo is the person may seem to be “sleeping” peacefully.
Some families preferred to give their deceased family member a more lifelike appearance. The dead could be so cleverly sat in a chair, they almost appeared alive. Yet another way to achieve a more realistic portrait was to have the corpse “stand” by using a metal rod inserted behind the clothes. Sometimes, the deceased person’s hand was holding onto a chair or some object to make them seem more lifelike.
Finding one of these photos today is a rare find. Some collectors of vintage photographs are willing to pay quite a bit of money for them and many are up for bid on Ebay right now. You may even be lucky enough to find a postmortem photo within your own family collection.
For more information and to view some of these unique postmortem photos, see the board created for postmortem photography at Pinterest. Happy hunting and happy Halloween!
[This article first appeared at the now retired RootsBid.com/blog and was written by Amie Bowser Tennant. Used with permission.]
 Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens, “Secure the Shadow…’Ere the Substance Fades,” digital article online, 25 Mar 2006, Ancestry Library (http://ancestrylibrary.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/4719/~/secure-the-shadow-.-.-.-ere-the-substance-fades : accessed 20 September 2015).
 Kenneth E. Nelson, “A Thumbnail History of the Daguerreotype,” digital article online, The Daugerreian Society (http://daguerre.org/resource/history/history.html : accessed 23 September 2015).
 Dan Meinwald, “Memento Mori: Death and Photography in Nineteenth Century America,” digital article online, Terminals (http://vv.arts.ucla.edu/terminals/meinwald/meinwald3.html : accessed 23 September 2015).
 Kerstens, “Secure the Shadow…’Ere the Substance Fades,” 2006.