Friday, October 4, 2013

Postmortem Photographs: a long standing misconception

For the month of October I've decided to share examples of the terrifying, creepy or downright strange. Today I'll be sharing some information about postmortem photographs, also known as memento mori.

"Sleeping Beauty"
Courtesy of The Thanatos Archive
Postmortem photography was very common in the nineteenth century when death occurred in the home and was quite an ordinary part of life. In Newfoundland the tradition is said to have lasted into the mid-twentieth century. Today, the tradition of taking postmortem photographs has largely ceased, which most likely indicates a cultural shift, reflecting a general discomfort with death. Today these images are often viewed as vulgar or sensational. However, when placed in historical context, these photographs are a loving memorization of dead family members. Many of these photos, especially those of infants and children, were the only images ever taken of the departed, and therefore cherished deeply by grieving family members. 

"The Bride"
Courtesy of The Thanatos Archive
There is, however, one misconception about postmortem images that I would like to clear up, especially after this list of memento mori photographs was posted today on the popular entertainment website, Buzzfeed. This list includes many images of the presumably dead, some of which are standing upright.

Upon seeing many of these "standing copses" I became skeptical and started to do some digging. I got in touch with Jack Mord, owner of the Thanatos Archive near Seattle, Washington, and he happily cleared this up for me. The Thanatos Archive has an extensive collection of original nineteenth and early twentieth century postmortem and memorial photographs, dating as far back at the 1840s.

Many people argue that the stand pictured above was used to prop up the dead for photographs. According to Mord, "You will never see a dead person simply standing, all by themselves, in the middle of a room supported by a stand. If there is a visible stand base in the photo, it’s guaranteed that they were alive." 

And why is this? Mord goes on to explain that, "those stands, like the one in the diagram, were simply posing stands. They were not made to support people’s weight in any way, and certainly not to hold up dead bodies."

Mord affirms that these stands had lightweight, adjustable arms and prongs on them that lightly touched the person’s body. The purpose of the stand was just to help a living person stay on mark and as still as possible for their portrait. 

There are cases where dead people have been posed standing up, but they are never stood up using common posing stands. As Mord explains, "if rigor mortis had set in, they would sometimes be photographed upright with other people supporting them, sometimes covered by, or behind blankets, or rarely, leaning back against a wall."

So how to do you know a faked "upright postmortem" image of a living person from the real and rare upright images of a corpse with rigor mortis? As Mord  describes, "when you do see these rare upright postmortem photos of people with rigor mortis, there is no doubt whatsoever they are dead – they look like stiff, dead corpses, usually with their eyes closed, not casually posed, healthy people."

"Mr. Colton"
Courtesy of The Thanatos Archive
Thank you to Jack Mord for helping with this post. If you are in the California area and are interested in postmortem photography, over 200 pieces from Mord's collection will be on exhibit at UC Fullerton from November 2 through December 12. 

Oh and if you were wondering about that list on Buzzfeed, according to Mord, numbers "3, 4, 8, 9, 10 and 12, are not postmortem images, and have been floating around for ages."

If you're from Newfoundland and Labrador and have any memento mori you would like to share, please email 



Mary in Austin said...

The exhibition mentioned starts on the Feast of All Souls, i.e., the Day of the Dead. Nice touch!

JennX said...

It's become quite common for parents to photograph stillborn babies again (or those who die shortly after birth). There are even photographers who 'specialize' in this delicate procedure.

Unknown said...

In 1992, when my grandmother passed away, my grandfather wanted to take pictures of her in the casket. The family was a little freaked out about it but felt they could not deny his request. Fortunately when the film was developed the pictures did not come out. It was like it was not meant to be as my grandmother hated to get her picture taken.

Denise said...

Great post!

I've always been fascinated by Victorian photographs of the dead and often wondered about the ones where the subject was allegedly standing. Great to have it explained. Many thanks for that.

Jeanne Ringland said...

my grandfather was a professional photographer and when he and my grandmother had their first baby in 1916 after years of trying, they sent out a postcard with a photo of the baby asleep in a bassinette.

They received a number of sympathy cards from friends. My grandmother was somewhat amused but when my dad was born the announcement postcard had a photo of a wide awake baby.

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