Where Did the Tradition Of Death Photography Emerge From
Virtually every culture has a way to remember a loved one who has died. Usually this comes in the form of some type of memorial or even picture of the departed. However, some cultures have also chosen to show the deceased after death, sometimes in a pose or lying or seated in state. The tradition of post-mortem portraits and photography were popular in the 19th century but they have never gone away and this tradition is still practiced in some cultures.
Beginnings of Post-Mortem Portraits and Photography
In the 1840s, daguerreotype photography made the idea of portraits popular among the middle classes. Previously, only wealthy classes were able to afford and commission portraits of themselves. While technology began to rapidly change in the mid-19th century, opening up new possibilities for consumerism, other trends that were common before this continued. Perhaps among the most telling was the trend of high infant mortality and high mortality among urban populations that were exposed to new forms of infectious diseases, including high incidences of cholera. High death rates and increasing population meant a new market began to emerge in many industrial countries as families experienced the sharp loss of losing a loved one while looking for ways to memorialize them. This began the tradition of death or post-mortem portraits. There were earlier, Medieval and early modern traditions in Europe, in sculpture and paintings, that showed the body or deceased in different form of decay after they had died. These were mostly to remind people of the presence of death and the need for Christ and God to save someone from eternal decay. However, showing someone almost immediately after they died in a portrait was a new, mid-19th century tradition that emerged in Great Britain, the United States, and in Europe.
Establishment of the Tradition
In the 1840s and much of the later 19th century, most people continued to die in their homes. Thus the tradition began where after a loved one had died the local photographer would be summoned to the house. Initially, families did not do much to make the deceased appear better or nice in the photograph. However, even poorer families began to develop a new taste for clothing or scenery to help remember their loved one. Different traditions did begin to emerge in Europe and the United States. In the US, families began to take photos and put them in boxes or mantels that would help remember the dead. In Europe, photographs were sometimes publically displayed to memorialize the deceased to others. Famous individuals such as Victor Hugo were photographed shortly after death with these photographs publically displayed.
By the late 19th century, photographs of the recently deceased became more elaborate. Now it was routine to even open the eyes of the dead and make them as living as possible in photographs. Families would even do family portraits with the diseased in them made to look like they are still living. Symbols, such as drums or hourglasses, were used as symbols of the dead in photographs, where these symbols would indicate that march of time and the limited time we might have.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, post-mortem photograph became less popular in the United States. However, there was some resurgence up until the 1930s. During this time, so-called "mourning tableaux" became popular, where the deceased would now be placed in a coffin and photographs of family members around the coffin would be conducted as a memorial photograph. By World War II, it was mostly ethnic urban minorities and rural populations that still practiced the tradition of post-mortem photography. Photographers such as James Van Der Zee in Harlem became well known for their post-mortem portrait photographs. He created a book called Harlem Book of the Dead that showed some of his work and symbolized the still somewhat popular practice in parts of the United States.