Making Portraits of the Departed

Photographs/ Unknown. Image Sources/ Wikimedia Commons,

Photographs/ Unknown. Image Sources/ Wikimedia Commons,

This story was originally published in July 2014.

Post-mortem photography, the practice of photographing the deceased, was popular during the Victorian era. This made it easier for families to create portraits of their loved ones, as it was quicker and cheaper in comparison to a painting, which was a time-consuming process. The 19th century was also a time of high mortality rates, especially amongst infants. This allowed families to have a picture of their children, which would, in all probability, be the only image that they would have to remember them. The practice was common in Europe, especially amongst the middle class.

The earliest post-mortem photos were either close-ups of the person’s face or a shot of the entire body. It was common to surround the deceased with flowers, while children, on the other hand, were usually surrounded by their favorite toys. The departed were made to look like they were resting, or they were propped up on a chair to make them appear more lively. In the case of children, a rosy tint was applied to their cheeks in the touch-up stage.

With the arrival of carte-de-visites in 1854, it became easier to create multiple copies of one photograph from the same negative. This made it convenient for families to share the image with relatives. Post-mortem photography, however, lost its significance at the end of the 19th century, with the arrival of snapshot photography.

The portrait-making process was seen as a means of making a memento and something to be treasured, owing to the serene nature of the deceased. But its portrayal today is associated with morbidity. One of the reasons could be the social and cultural shift since then, that has turned death into a morbid and discomforting topic.

Tags: april, Better Photograph, 2014, Victorian Era, Deceased, Morbid