Writing about Victorian postmortem photos

Until fairly recently, I believed, as many people do, that the Victorians constantly posed corpses as though they were alive, and used lots of fancy tricks to achieve this. In fact, thousands upon thousands of historical photos feature dead people whom you’d never guess on first glance are really dead! If someone in a Victorian photo has a creepy look, odds are, it’s a postmortem photo!

Except that’s a total myth, perpetuated by people who uncritically believe everything they hear or read.

Though it’s another total myth that the average person dropped dead at all of 35 until the modern era, there’s no denying that life on average was much harder and shorter. Even the upper classes weren’t immune to deadly diseases and the dangers of childbirth. Thus, our historical counterparts were much more used to death than we are, and didn’t fear it.

It was most common for people to die at home, surrounded by loved ones, instead of hidden away in hospitals. Death was seen as a natural, normal, inevitable event. Wakes were likewise held in houses instead of funeral parlors.

Victorians had very elaborate, detailed, structured rules about mourning, and many people wore mourning jewelry containing locks of the deceased’s hair, made from black materials like onyx and jet, and carved into symbols like skulls, coffins, oak sprays with an empty acorn cup, and lilies-of-the-valley. Ivory was also used, particularly for young people, as a symbol of innocence.

This is one of countless photos constantly trotted out as postmortem, but in reality, it was most likely a pre-mortem photo. That is, this young woman was very ill, and her parents wanted one final living photo with her. She may have passed away not long after the photo was taken. Pre-mortem photography was quite common.

Unless you know someone had a really dark, twisted sense of humor, it’s safe to say all photos of people in coffins are legit postmortem. People lying on beds, their eyes closed, also tend to be postmortem.

This is NOT a postmortem photo for one pretty obvious reason: Dead people can’t stand! Corpses aren’t Gumbies. You can’t mold and shape them any which way you want. Once rigor mortis sets in, that’s it. They’re locked in that position.

Dead weight means something. Even if you were able to prop up a corpse with metal rods and stands, they wouldn’t stay like that more than a few seconds unless you also tightly tied them in place. That may have been done for some forensic photos, but not for the vast majority of deceased Victorians.

Metal stands were absolutely used in many Victorian photos (some visible, some not), but not to prop up literal dead weight. The Victorians treated their dead with dignity, and had zero issue showing them as deceased. With death so common in that era, particularly among the non-elderly, there was no reason to go through elaborate staging to pretend they were really alive.

Those stands were used to help subjects with holding still during exposures which could last up to a minute in the early Victorian era. How many people are capable of holding completely still, in the same exact pose, for so long?

Though exposure time had shrunk to as little as three seconds by the late 1850s, even one second of inadvertent motion can create a blurry image. It happens in modern photos as well.

A blurry picture means the same thing it does today—someone moved at the wrong time. Thus, not dead! This woman is also only holding twins, not triplets. (Can three babies even fit on a normal-sized person’s lap?)

It’s the same story with serious expressions. You try holding a natural-looking, non-creepy smile for up to a minute and see how it goes. The Victorians loved having fun, but before instant exposure, smiling in a photo was impossible.

Many postmortem photos featuring babies and very young children show them on a mother’s lap, but this ain’t one of them. Living people, particularly very young ones, are known to close their eyes in photos, you know. The caption on the back also says nothing about death.

Additionally, a truly deceased child would be dressed more formally, and be lying flat, not sitting nearly upright.

Nothing to see here but Lewis Carroll alive and well. Just as in the modern era, Victorians also took many photos of themselves lounging across couches and reclining in chairs.

Maybe a photo looks creepy because of the limitations of older photographic technology; e.g., blue eyes appear white because of chemical processes, and exposure makes the rest of the body seem darker so as to highlight the face. Other culprits are poor lighting, overly stiff posture, shadows, or eyes that just creep some people out.

None of these alleged postmortem photos show things like drooping skin, rigor mortis, or darkened skin resembling bruising. They all look alive and well, only much more formally-posed than we’re used to.

The little girl on the far left is NOT dead! Hardly unheard-of for small children to zone out during photos and act bored with the entire proceedings.

Some people did paint pupils over closed eyelids, but for LIVING people, not the deceased. Hidden mother photography was also a real (and very creepy) thing, but more often than not done with living babies who needed to be kept still. Again, Victorians treated their dead with great respect and didn’t use them as creepy props.

The people who keep perpetuating this myth aren’t deliberately ignorant, but it becomes so much harder to debunk when people keep passing it along as truth.

4 thoughts on “Writing about Victorian postmortem photos

  1. That is a very interesting article. I don’t think I had heard the myth before about post mortem pictures. I do know that when I was a very young girl (I’m 62 now), people tended to take a lot of pictures at funerals – of the dead person in the coffin, of the flowers, etc. I always thought that was odd!

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