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Post-mortem Photography – Photographing the Dead

Post-mortem photography is a little known yet widely sensationalised and maligned genre within the greater sphere of photography. Most commonly people encounter it in our modern world via clickbait articles online. However, if you look beyond that, take off your 21st-century glasses and start to view the genre from the standpoint of the people involved, it becomes something entirely different.

Post Mortem Photograph - Unknown Child by C Francis circa 1870
Post Mortem Photograph – Unknown Child by C Francis circa 1870

Here in Britain, it was most popular during the 19th-century Victorian era where it developed out of long, complex and well established funerary traditions and practices with their origins dating back to at least the 5th century. It played an important role within society which had strict expectations on family duty and appropriate behaviour, spreading to all levels of society by the turn of the 20th century.

In this live talk for the Art d’ Morte online event in April 2020, I discuss how I came to research the genre and then go through some of the main aspects of it here in Britain. The background, the history which fed into the traditions, and what was normal within the genre. The main two main forms, ‘Death as Sleep’ and ‘Dead as Alive’ and the common conventions in each. Aspects of working as a post mortem photographer and then ultimately how it fell out of favour in British society leading up to the modern-day echos still around today. The talk was originally given live on Facebook but has now been uploaded onto YouTube (with appropriate edits such as a timestamped table of contents).

Post-mortem Photograph of Ada Browne and her mother (1867) - Unknown Photographer
Post-mortem Photograph of Ada Browne and her mother (1867) – Unknown Photographer

This genre was never about creating creepy or weird images for the people who were involved. It was about creating keepsakes of a loved one, about functioning within a complex society with expectations of duty and religious observance which we are not used to today. If you take off those 21st-century eyes and do your best to look through some 19th-century ones instead you’ll find images that are really tender, sweet and poignant.