Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Post Mortem Portraits of Children Lecture

Death Conference Talk at Grenfell Campus, 
Memorial University of Newfoundland
September 2011

Sleeping Beauty: Post Mortem Photographic Portraiture of Children

From "Extended Moments" 1983

You may wonder why it is that I would want to collect post mortem portraiture. As a visual artist, I have been interested in mortality and the transience of life, focusing on the artifacts that prolong the signs of our existence. This began with memento mori still life and images using bad taxidermy. I could no longer ignore that I was really exploring my own mortality, so my current research has been focused on human temporality and the passage of our bodies from dust to dust, so to speak. I am also very interested in the artifacts we create as memorials.

The painted portrait has the power to preserve for eternity an individual’s likeness and presence within a family gallery at a specific time in their life. When painted well, it can convey personality, although often idealized and perfected. The portrait can communicate status, wealth, and even one’s goals. Before the invention of photography, only the wealthy could afford to hire painters and portrait artists to make likenesses of family members.

Once photography gained a foothold in the 1840’s and prices dropped to a few cents so that anyone could get a photograph made, everyone was keen to have a portrait of each member of the family for the wall or carte-de-visite photo album. Many millions of portraits were made in the early years of photography, and the numbers continued to climb as the hunger for a visual family record spread to all classes and sectors of society worldwide.

Portraits were at this time formal affairs, with a special trip to the photographic emporium in order to have a likeness made in one’s finest clothes. These events were usually at important milestones in a person’s life: coming of age, marriage, anniversaries, etc. Small children were hard to control or keep still for the long exposure times necessary when sitting for a photographic portrait in the 19th century. So few young children or infants appear in the photo record, unless held firmly in a mother’s lap or seated on a chair with someone’s hand on their shoulder.

Memorializing the dead has also had a very long history and pre-history and makes up a separate portrait genre. It takes on many forms, from written and oral tributes, to tomb sculpture and portraits, death masks and memorial architecture.

The posthumous portrait painting of the recently deceased was common in some strata of society and can be seen as a precursor to post mortem portraiture today. It was seen as a way to remember the personage as a once living being, idealized in a final portrait that lives on.

In the age of photography, however, the practice of post mortem portraiture was different in that it was far more ubiquitous and far more unforgiving in its documentation of reality. In the mid-19th century we find the production of post mortem photographic portraits alongside the continuing production of posthumous mourning paintings.

The big difference in motivation and outcome is that the painters created the illusion of life in death, while the photographs were a much more imperfect illusion or pretense of sleep. As Jay Ruby writes in his seminal book “Secure the Shadow,” ...
“… post mortem photographs constitute a failed attempt at trompe l’oeil which fooled no one. Their function was not to keep the dead alive, but to enable mourners to acknowledge their loss.” (p.43)

The evolution of how society views death and the process of dying has effected how we face it in images. When death was part of family life, taking place at home and in the presence of the whole family, we were accustomed to it as a natural process. As society shifted towards a denial of the process of death, to where others undertook the task of dealing with the dying and dead, we lost the first-hand contact with the body of a dead person. By the 1930’s professionals had completely taken over all aspects of a person’s passage from sick bed to cemetery. Family members were simply observers and mourners, and even then were not allowed to see certain stages of preparation.

This past familiarity with death as part of life meant that it was one of those passages that was also photographed. Professional photographers and studios openly advertized post mortem portraiture along with all their other photographic services. In the mid-19th century, articles appeared in trade journals advising photographers on how to properly and artistically photograph the dead. Studios advertized their skills at making post mortem portraits in the convenience of the family’s own home. Mourning families sought out these services to display the results in their homes or to send them to far away relatives who may have missed the funeral.

The embossed memorial card was a common Victorian option to the final portrait and was often handed out at funerals or given to relatives.

The deceased’s name was printed on a card with a poetic sentiment or sometimes a small photo-portrait of the person in life.

Other photo-based memorial cards would use an earlier life portrait and surround it with a scroll motif or vignette.

This scroll-work border indicated through its symbolism that the person depicted was no longer of this world.

Photographs of an arranged display of the flowers that were sent to the funeral could also act as a memorial. Sometimes a photographic portrait could be found amidst these flowers.



Following a rigid Victorian code, family members who were photographed in the days, months and years following a death would be seen wearing various stages of mourning clothes as dictated by traditions of full mourning, half mourning, etc.

When tragedy struck and an infant was stillborn or a small child died, this usually meant that there had not yet been the opportunity to obtain a photographic portrait of these new arrivals.

So after a death, there was a strong motivation for families to obtain a last portrait or family group. A baby would be held in a mother’s arms as if asleep, sometimes surrounded by other family members. There was only a brief opportunity to have a final visual record made of the youngest. Most of the older family members may have already been photographed, so they were therefore less likely to be carted off to the photographer’s studio for a coffin portrait, although this was done as well. An early advertising slogan suggested “Secure the Shadow, ‘Ere the Substance Fades”. This may be one reason why we find the child or infant dominating the tradition of post mortem portraiture.

In the 19th C when people were increasingly migrating to industrialized cites, the rates of infant mortality actually increased when compared to the 18th C, reaching as high as 30 to 50%. This alone could also account for the predominance of postmortem portraiture being of children and infants.

At first, the dead child was usually photographed at home, sometimes close up and with tenderness and dressed in their finest christening gown.

They were often depicted with the sentiments of “the last sleep,” lying in cradles or on beds or cots. The sentiment of a final sleep pervaded the aesthetics of these portraits in the latter half of the 19th C. especially.

They might be seated in their baby carriages.

Sometimes, if a little older, they were seated in chairs, even with their eyes open in a pose that was supposed to feign life.

Older children were posed with favorite toys, teddies, and wearing ornate dresses or new britches. Hair was often curled or combed.

It may also be worth noting that in the 19th and early 20th Centuries the newly dead, ironically, often looked healthy and robust compared to the dying today, when many patients are kept alive until they waste away.

When we look at these images solely from a sociological or historical perspective, we may not necessarily see their aesthetic attributes. What I find prominent in many is the sublime and tender treatment given to a very difficult subject when in the hands of a capable photographer.

Lighting is used in descriptive and often emotional ways, settings and accompaniments are thoughtful and even elegant, and many have personal touches. Of course, not all photographers had the skill nor the aptitude to do this well, but most seem to have tried.

In this early hand-tinted ambrotype of a child in a coffin we see that there is no attempt to deny the context, although the clasped hands and added color seem to contradict that.

In this tintype of a young lady lying on a day bed, we see that the photographer has given her cheeks color, an attempt to infer sleep.

In other photographs we see the child lying on sofas or seated in chairs in homes that seem to be middle class.

Some may be in the photographer’s studio.

But other photographs show much less opulence and are obviously taken by a non-professional photographer with an amateur camera for the family record right on the back stoop.

The portraits required available light, so the child was often photographed in a rough backyard or driveway.

In spite of the home-spun surroundings, we see lacy garments, flowers and candles that attest to the solemnity and concern these impoverished families were still able to achieve for their loved one. I especially appreciate the Coke bottle candle stands here on the right.

The elaborate care and attention to presentation is clearly seen here inside a modest chapel in Peru.

In the 1880’s in the United States especially, when funerals in general became more elaborate, images were made of the family group standing around the casket; first at the gravesite, then by the 20th century, in the funeral home.

By the 20th century, the emphasis shifted from the post mortem portrait to the family group and their grief, and to the funeral as a social event.

This seems to be even more dominant in photos I have from Eastern Europe where we often see the whole family gathered around the coffin for the funeral portrait.

In America, the view of the deceased was no longer close up but evolved to a ¾ view in the casket, then the whole casket surrounded by flowers. In some, there is no sign of the body at all; just the event with a casket.

By the 1880’s photographic journals no longer carried articles about photographing the dead, partly because professionals already knew how to do it, and there was a dwindling desire to bring attention to the practice. Among the last was an 1891 advertisement for the use of artificial light when photographing the corpse.

However, the practice of post mortem portraiture continues unabated throughout the 20th and now the 21st centuries, but it is done without advertizing or open discussion. The results are shared only among family intimates.

By the middle of the 20th century, professional services were no longer necessary, as anyone could access and use a small camera, a Polaroid, or more recently, a digital camera. The act of making a remembrance portrait has become a private family act for many.

Many people still want a portrait of a newly lost infant, but are unwilling to ask for such service. Many photographers are often unwilling to offer it, let alone actually provide it. Although some believe that photographs of the dead are unhealthy and prolong one’s inability to face grief, other grief professionals and health care workers see the value of a visual record of such an event, as it may be needed later if the parents need help with closure or accepting their loss. The authors of a 1985 pamphlet: “A Most Important Picture: A Very Tender Manual for Taking Pictures of Stillborn Babies and Infants Who Die” from the Centering Corp. of Omaha Nebraska, explain:

“The importance of pictures: There are four basic reasons for taking pictures of infants who have died: A picture helps the family confirm the reality of their baby’s life and death. A picture shows them exactly how the baby looked so they do not have to rely on memory or fantasy. A picture gives them one way to share their baby with other people. A picture may be the only tangible memory of their baby.”  (Joy Johnson, Marvin Johnson, James H. Cunningham, and Irwin J. Weinfeld)

Even though everybody now has easy access through personal digital cameras, some still prefer the services of a skilled professional photographer. Today there is a website which features contemporary professional post-mortem portrait services made available at no cost to parents who have lost a child: nowilaymedowntosleep.org Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep specializes in infant bereavement photography. Co-founded in 2005 by Cheryl Haggard, whose fourth child died just six days after his birth, and photographer Sandy Puc, the group connects a network of professional photographers, who provide their services free of charge, with parents grieving the loss of a new child. The professional results are far more emotionally charged, loving and atmospheric than what the layperson would likely capture with their own point-and-shoot camera at such a stressful time. You might also notice that the modern NowILayMeDownToSleep portraits are photographed in black and white – a format that seems to abstract the content enough so the image can be seen as more aesthetically acceptable, especially when compared to the stark reality of the color snapshots we just saw in the previous image.

Post Mortem Portraiture can even be the subject of art. From The Guardian: "This somber series of portraits taken of people before and after they had died is a challenging and poignant study. The work is by German photographer Walter Schels and his partner Beate Lakotta, who recorded interviews in 2003 and 2004 with the subjects in their final days, and reveals much about dying - and living. The series is called Life Before Death."

Other works like these amazing portraits from The Travelers by Elizabeth Heyert seem to celebrate life in death. These people are dressed up in their finest for the next life.

The tradition of post mortem portrait photography continues, but it is usually private and personal. Death photography can be therapeutic for some, providing a way to face loss and as an aid through one’s own grieving process, and, less so, as a family memorial. Facing the dead in a photograph may be our last opportunity to face the universal state of death and not be so frightened by its strangeness.


  1. This is so interesting Dave! Thanks for posting it. I was just looking at Korean death ritual objects today and thinking how they were both unique and have much in common with every other culture. Their shrouds were not so different from ones I have seen in Newfoundland. Yet, the traditional practice was for the children (maybe just oldest son?) to wear mourning clothes (white) for three years after the death of his parents and to set out food offers at breakfast and dinner - again for three years. It made me wonder how such acknowledgements of one person's death shapes our sense of place in the world...three years is a long time!!

    Endlessly fascinating topic...

  2. You may believe that, once the soul of your pet is gone.
    cremation scottsdale

  3. Hello,

    And this is a link with nice postmortem photographs from past to present day:



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