Art History Lab

Unveiling the Enigmatic World of Victorian Post-Mortem Photography

The Victorian era is often associated with grandeur, high fashion, and progress. However, it is also known for its strange and morbid fascination with death.

One way that this fascination manifested itself was through post-mortem photography. In this article, we will delve into the world of Victorian post-mortem photography and explore its cultural context, controversy, purpose, significance, and accessibility.

Definition and Cultural Context

Post-Mortem photography, also known as Mortuary Photography, involves taking photographs of deceased persons. This practice was more prevalent during the Victorian era (1837-1901) in America, Europe, and Asia.

During this period, high mortality rates due to disease and war made the death of loved ones a common experience for many. At the same time, new photographic technology, especially the invention of the daguerreotype in 1816, made capturing lasting images of those lost to death much easier.

In Victorian culture, death was considered a very private affair, with respect for the newly departed being of paramount importance. The person’s body would be cleaned and dressed in their finest clothes, and the family arranged to have a photographer come and take a photograph of them.

These images held great significance for the grieving family, as it allowed them to remember their loved ones in a way that was not possible before the advent of photography. However, post-mortem photography also had a darker side.

It was not uncommon for photographers to stage elaborate scenes to make the deceased look more lifelike, including using props and posing them as if they were alive. While this was done with the best of intentions, to create a commemorative image for the family to cherish, it could often come across as distasteful to modern sensibilities.

Controversy and Offensiveness

Today, post-mortem photography is viewed as something that is quite disturbing and can offend current sensibilities. The thought of taking pictures of deceased relatives, even for the purpose of commemoration, is unfathomable to some people.

However, it is important to remember that this practice was accepted in Victorian society, and people of that time did not view it as being macabre or inappropriate. There are also instances where post-mortem photography has been misused, alongside the documentation of people who have been lynched or murdered.

These images have been propagated with the purpose of sensationalizing violent crimes or forwarding racist agendas. This complexity has added to the ongoing debate about the problematic aspects of post-mortem photography.

The Art of Post-Mortem Photography

Post-mortem photography was not only a way of capturing a loved ones memory for generations to come. It was seen as an art form.

The photographs provided solace for bereaved families, and a means to remember their loved one’s life and dignity. It allowed people to see themselves and their loved ones as part of the process of death and mourning- something that was also important to the grieving process.

Purpose and Significance

Post-mortem photography also acted as a means of commemoration for the family. At a time when death was very common, it provided a unique way for people to remember the deceased and commemorate their life.

The pictures could be cherished and displayed in the familys home for generations, ensuring that the memory of the departed would never fade away.

Accessibility and Technology

With the high mortality rates of the time, post-mortem photography was something that was accessible to many people. The new photographic technology of the Victorian era made it possible to capture lasting images of the deceased that would last for generations.

It also meant that photographs could be reproduced easily and, therefore, shared with extended family and friends, meaning that everyone who knew the deceased could have their own lasting memory.


Victorian Post-Mortem Photography was a unique facet of the society of the period, allowing people to remember their loved ones in a lasting and dignified way. While the practice is now seen as controversial or even morbid, it cannot be denied that it was a significant cultural phenomenon of its time.

Through these photographs, we can glimpse the lives and deaths of ordinary people throughout the Victorian era, and bear witness to the profound impact that death had on society during this period.

Reasons for Taking Post-Mortem Photos

During the Victorian era, high mortality rates due to disease and illness meant that death was not uncommon, particularly among children. Measles, scarlet fever, and cholera were just some of the diseases that could quickly claim lives, and the threat of death was always present.

As a result, post-mortem photography was seen as a way to commemorate individuals who had died too soon. This was especially true for parents who lost their children at a young age, which was relatively common during this period.

Emotional Connection and Mourning

Emotional connection and mourning were at the heart of post-mortem photography. The photographs often depicted family members mourning, holding, and posing with their deceased loved ones.

These images were seen as a valuable way to remember them and, in a way, keep them close. They served as a way to console grieving families by allowing them to see their loved one as they were before death overtook them physically.

In one example, a mother was photographed holding her deceased baby. The image showed the baby as if they were asleep in the arms of their mother, creating a poignant and touching memory of the child.

Similarly, fathers who lost young children were often shown looking over them, creating a lasting tribute to their life. For many families, post-mortem photographs were a means to find comfort in their grief and to remember their loved ones in a very significant way.

How Real Victorian Death Photos Were Taken

Technical Aspects of Photography

One of the unique aspects of post-mortem photography is that the subjects were always deceased, and yet, the goal was to create images that depicted them as if they were still alive. This required the photographer to make certain technical adjustments in order to capture the best possible image.

For example, the subjects had to remain very still during the shoot, which meant using shorter shutter speeds. This allowed for a sharp and focused image, which was important to create an accurate representation of the deceased.

Setting and Preparation

Post-mortem photography was often taken in the home of the deceased. This gave the family a degree of privacy during the period of mourning, and it was also where they would have spent most of their time together before death.

The family members would prepare the body of the deceased by washing and dressing them in their finest clothing. Sometimes, additional attention was given to their makeup, and more elaborate scenes were created to enhance the appearance of the deceased as a living person.

The way in which the photograph was posed was equally important. In some images, family members would pose alongside the deceased, which created a sense of intimacy and connection between them.

The images were often very carefully stylized and embellished, with the intention of representing the life of the deceased in the most dignified and respectful way.


Post-mortem photographs were significant in the Victorian era, providing a means for individuals to commemorate and grieve for loved ones who had passed away. They offered a lasting tribute to the dead and provided comfort and solace for those who were grieving.

Today, post-mortem photography is still an unusual and controversial practice, but it remains a fascinating reminder of how people in the past used photography to remember the dead, and to keep them close even after they had passed away.

Fake Post-Mortem Photography

While post-mortem photography was a common practice in the 19th century, it is also a popular subject for forgeries and misidentification on the internet. These images often circulate online, and many people unknowingly share images that have been misidentified as post-mortem photographs.

One famous example of this is photographs attributed to Lewis Carroll depicting young girls posed in death-like positions. While the authenticity of these photographs is still contested, many have been debunked as fakes.

Authenticating Post-Mortem Photographs

One of the challenges with authenticating post-mortem photographs is distinguishing between images that depict living individuals from those who are deceased. Often, the subject’s lifeless appearance can be due to outdated photographic technology or the way the photograph was composed and posed.

This can make it difficult for experts to authenticate post-mortem photographs, especially if they lack context around the subject and the picture’s origin.

History and Cultural Variations of Post-Mortem Photography

Global Spread and Popularity

While post-mortem photography has its roots in early daguerreotype photography, it also has a connection to traditional portrait painting. It became particularly popular in Victorian Britain and became one of the most significant aspects of photographic history.

As photographs became more accessible to the general public, the practice of post-mortem photography spread throughout the world, becoming a commonplace activity amongst cultures worldwide.

Regional Practices and Changes Over Time

In Nordic nations, post-mortem photography was a common practice during the 19th and early 20th centuries. In Iceland, photography became more accessible to the public, and people began taking photographs of their loved ones at home after death.

These photographs were often displayed in gold frames and kept in the family home as a way of remembering the deceased. In India, post-mortem photography has been culturally significant for centuries.

Varanasi, the city of the dead, is known for its elaborate death rituals, including the practice of taking post-mortem photographs of the deceased. These images are often shared with family and friends to commemorate the life of the deceased, and the photographs are taken in front of the Ganges River, which is believed to have purifying powers.


Post-mortem photography has had a fascinating and varied history across different cultures worldwide. While it was most popular in the 19th century, the practice has persisted for centuries, providing a way for people to remember and commemorate their loved ones.

However, as the internet makes it easier and easier to share images without verifying and validating their origins, it has also become a subject of controversy in recent times. It is vital to approach any purported post-mortem photograph with caution and respect, as they represent someone’s grief, and the individuals photographed often have a story that deserves to be told accurately and truthfully.

Perspectives and Controversies around Post-Mortem Photography

Different Cultural Perspectives and Acceptance

Post-mortem photography has varied widely in terms of cultural perspectives and acceptance throughout history. While it was widely practiced in Victorian-era Western societies, it also had its own cultural variations and interpretations.

In some cultures, such as Mexico, mourning tableaux were created to honor the deceased. These tableaux involved elaborate setups of the deceased in a lifelike manner, surrounded by personal belongings, flowers, and other symbolic items.

The purpose was to create a visual representation of the person’s life and to provide comfort and solace to the grieving family. These tableaux were often displayed publicly during funeral processions and gatherings.

Religious beliefs also play a significant role in shaping cultural perspectives on post-mortem photography. In certain religious traditions, taking photographs or creating visual representations of the deceased may be seen as disrespectful or unnecessary.

Instead, the focus is on honoring the deceased through rituals and prayers. Other religious traditions may have specific guidelines or practices related to memorializing the dead, which may or may not involve photography.

Cultural shifts over time have also influenced the acceptance and practice of post-mortem photography. As societal attitudes towards death and mourning have changed, so too have the practices surrounding commemoration.

With the advent of modern funeral practices and a greater emphasis on privacy, post-mortem photography has become less common and more controversial in many cultures.

Current Views and Misconceptions

In our current era, post-mortem photography is often viewed as a private and personal matter. Many people find the idea of photographing deceased individuals to be uncomfortable or even morbid.

There are misconceptions about the practice, such as the belief that it is intended to be a form of entertainment or that it is done solely for shock value. The rise of the internet has also contributed to the misconceptions surrounding post-mortem photography.

With the ease of sharing and disseminating information online, images can be taken out of context or misattributed, leading to confusion and misinformation. This has resulted in the circulation of false post-mortem photographs, further blurring the lines between what is real and what is fabricated.

It is important to approach post-mortem photography with sensitivity and understanding. While it may not align with the preferences or cultural norms of some individuals, it is essential to respect the choices and beliefs of others.

Post-mortem photography, when done with respect and consent, can be a meaningful way for families to remember and honor their loved ones.


Post-mortem photography is a complex and multifaceted subject that has evolved over time and differs across cultures. The perspectives and controversies surrounding the practice reflect differing cultural beliefs, religious traditions, and societal shifts.

While post-mortem photography may not be widely accepted or understood in our current society, it remains a deeply personal and significant part of some people’s mourning and grieving processes. As with any aspect of cultural practice, empathy and respect are essential when engaging with post-mortem photography, and it is important to approach the subject with an open mind and a willingness to understand diverse perspectives.

In conclusion, Victorian post-mortem photography holds a significant place in history and provokes contrasting views. While it served as a means of commemoration, solace, and remembrance for families during a time of high mortality rates, it is now seen as disturbing and offensive to many.

Authenticating these photographs can be challenging due to the technical aspects and the spread of forgeries online. Cultural perspectives and acceptance of post-mortem photography have varied greatly, influenced by religious beliefs and changing societal attitudes.

It is crucial to approach this topic with sensitivity and respect, acknowledging the diverse ways in which individuals mourn and remember their loved ones. Post-mortem photography may be unsettling, but it offers insights into the customs, emotions, and historical contexts of a bygone era, reminding us of the enduring significance of capturing and preserving memories in a world that is constantly evolving.

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