Post-mortem photography

This might seem an abrupt change in direction, from last week’s silly and frivolous post about hotties in old photos, changing over to this week’s post to, well, dead people in old photos. But nevertheless, here we go.

(Disclaimer: I will be sharing a few examples of post-mortem photography from my own photograph collections near the end of this post. They’re not graphic at all, but if you prefer not to see any actual photos of dead people, you might want to bail before you get to the end. Let the record show that I warned you.)

Back in May when I was writing my “Hair in a Book” post (5/24/2011) about the several locks of hair I found in an old Bible, I kept coming across the term “memento mori” – which, loosely translated from Latin, means “reminder of death.” That was one of the primary reasons people kept locks of hair – as a memento of a departed loved one. That sort of memento was particularly common in the Victorian era, a time when sentimentality and high mortality converged.

Another type of memento mori was post-mortem photography; that is, photographs of deceased individuals. Now, I actually had seen some examples of post-mortem photography before (we’ll get to that in a minute), but I did not realize it was a relatively common practice (or at least, that’s what I understand to be the case based on what I’ve now read about it).

In the Victorian era, mortality rates were higher and photography was…well, it was within the reach of many but was mainly conducted by professionals. People might hire a photographer to take a picture of a deceased person who, especially if it was a child, may never have been photographed while living, so this post-mortem photo was literally their last chance for a photo of that person. We might think this seems strange today, but death was much more a part of everyday life back then. Eventually this type of photography became much less common in America by the early 20th century because the subject of death has become uncomfortable to discuss, let alone photograph.

I won’t attempt to cover all the details of the history of this custom, but if you want to know more, you may find the following sources interesting:

  • “Post-mortem photography,” on Wikipedia.
  • Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens, “Secure the Shadow…Ere the Substance Fades,” Ancestry Magazine 23:5 (Sept./Oct. 2005), online.
  • Various works by Stanley B. Burns, including Sleeping Beauty (3 vols); here’s his web site and his blog.

According to Stanley Burns (Sleeping Beauty, 2nd ed., 1990), post-mortem photography in America in the 1930s-1940s was “mainly being done by immigrant, ethnic, and certain lower-class groups”. Furthermore, he calls the era of 1935-present “the age of amateurs” and states that “almost any aspect of funerary process, from casket to graveside, is seen.”

That pretty much sums up what I found in my grandfather’s photograph collection.

(If you don’t want to see the pictures I mentioned before, now might be a good time for you to leave.)

My grandfather was born in Italy in 1913. He immigrated to the United States in 1934. His parents had immigrated shortly before he did, and the family settled in Portsmouth, Ohio. His mother died in 1941 and his father in 1952.

Grandpa had several photographs each from both his parents’ wakes and funerals. I remember how odd I thought this was, when I saw them for the first time several years ago – when Grandpa was still alive. I had never seen these types of pictures before.

Great-grandmother's funeral, in the parlor, 1941

Great-grandmother's funeral, in the parlor, 1941

Great-grandmother's funeral, at the cemetery, 1941

Great-grandmother's funeral, at the cemetery, 1941

One of the photographs from my great-grandfather’s wake even had my grandfather in it — standing next to his father’s open casket.

Grandpa and great-grandfather, funeral, in the parlor, 1952

Grandpa and great-grandfather, funeral, in the parlor, 1952

Great-grandfather's funeral, in the parlor, 1952

Great-grandfather's funeral, in the parlor, 1952

Great-grandfather's funeral, at the cemetery, 1952

Great-grandfather's funeral, at the cemetery, 1952

I wondered whether this practice had anything to do with Italian customs, since I had never seen anything like it before. Perhaps this is common in Italy, I wondered. In the case of these particular pictures, it can’t be because they didn’t have other pictures of the individual — because I have seen several other pictures of both these people, while they were alive. So I guess I just don’t know. It’s too bad I didn’t think to ask Grandpa, “What was your reason for taking these pictures?” while he was still alive. But alas, I didn’t…and in 2008, he died, also.

I wasn’t sure what the reason was for his post-mortem pictures of his parents, but I thought maybe he’d be pleased if he knew that somebody thought to take a post-mortem picture of him, too. But, like all the articles have said — and as we just sort of know — people can be weird about death, and you don’t often see post-mortem photographs anymore. So at my grandfather’s wake, I asked my father if he would mind if I took a picture — I didn’t want to weird anybody out — and with his permission, I snapped a few. Here’s one of them.

Grandpa, at the funeral parlor, 2008

Grandpa, at the funeral parlor, 2008

I like to think Grandpa would be pleased. After all, he’s looking pretty sharp in his Knights of Columbus uniform. I have another photo in which you can see two of the Knights standing guard on either side of him. In still another, my cousin’s little boy is having a sit on the prayer kneeler…which everybody thought was pretty cute at the time. I was glad the photographing went over well with the family. I certainly didn’t want to upset anybody…but at the same time, it was one of those “last chance for a photo” moments. (Again, we have tons of pictures of Grandpa while he was living. But I just thought…in case I ever do find out there was some real significance to the photos he felt the need to take of his own parents and that maybe he would have liked one of himself, it’s not like I can go back in time and take the pictures later…)

In parting on this subject, I will leave you with the only other post-mortem photograph I have ever found (i.e., besides the ones of my great-grandparents). This one is of a tiny baby in a wooden casket — probably an example of one of those cases where no other photo of this person ever existed prior to death.

baby girl in casket

baby girl in casket

The photo is not dated, but I have guessed it was probably from the 1920s or 1930s. The writing on the back is in Italian, but I can’t quite make it out. I think some of the words must be misspelled, because I am usually pretty good with an Italian dictionary or at least Google Translator. And I’m not getting much from the words on the back of this picture, besides “povera mia” or “my poor girl”. If anybody would like to take a stab at translating it for me, let me know, and I’ll send you the image.

So…I’m curious. Has anyone else found any of these in their collections? Apparently early ones can be difficult to recognize as post-mortem photos because the subjects were often posed in lifelike positions. I’d be interesting in hearing what others have found in their collections, because as I said, until I found these in my Grandpa’s photos, I had never even heard of such a thing, let alone seen one.

** EDIT ** Here is a scan of the back side of that photograph of the deceased infant. Thanks to Theresa for offering to try and translate it for me! (I have tried myself, but I think either the handwriting or the spelling — or both — is what’s defeating me!)

Back of the Baby Girl in Casket photo

Back of the Baby Girl in Casket photo

9 responses to “Post-mortem photography

  1. Creepy, but interesting. The Seward House in Auburn, NY (I’m pretty sure it was them) did an exhibit a few years ago where they researched funerary customs and photographs at the time of Seward’s death, and re-created those images throughout the house. He died around 1920 and I think it was for the anniversary of his death. I was really sorry to miss it. Personally, without those images, we have no idea what the customs were or how some of those customs still exist today. At least those images are a reminder that that person existed. In Berks County, everyone named their children the same name. In a family group, they could have multiple children of the same name because of the mortality rate. In fact, I am fairly certain some children were not named until around the age of 1-2 for the same reason. Good post!

  2. Lisa,
    This post was very interesting to me. You may or may not know that my daughter delivered a full-term baby, Dane Patrick who was stillborn. At the time, we asked about getting their camera to take pictures. They said no and the nursing staff actually did take one picture. Stephanie really regrets not taking more pictures of Dane, especially with her and her husband. At the time, she was so grief stricken and really couldn’t fathom wanting to take those pictures. Now she wishes she had because she has very little of him to remember him by. Until that time, pictures of dead babies or people had always seemed a little creepy to me. I didn’t really understand how important it could be in certain situations.
    Hope all is well with you and

  3. Hey Lisa, I’ll take a stab at translating the back. Now I’m intrigued and need to know what it says.🙂 Great entry, by the way. I wonder if the pics of your great grandparents, being Italian, have anything to do with the custom of the dead in Italy. I know that the body is displayed in the home for a day or so, at least 24 hours, to a.) let the family come pay their respects, and b.) be ultimately sure that the person is truly deceased. They still do this today, which seems strange to us, but totally normal over there.

    • Thanks, Theresa! I appreciate it! I’ve added the scan of the back to the original blog post, at the bottom. Wow, thanks for sharing that bit about the Italian funeral customs. I did not know that – they still do that even today, huh? Neat. One of the sources I found while researching this was actually published in 2010 in Italy but it’s a book not a web resource, so I couldn’t find a copy of it. It’s called “Ripartire dagli addii: uno studio sulla fotografia post-mortem” by Mirko Orlando.

      • My guess would be that the baby’s name is Piera Agliolo Bello. Although it is uncommon for Italians to carry a middle name, unless both parents’ names are included. Kinda hard to say. I searched Agliolo, and it does seem to be a last name that quite a few folks have.
        Sorry, best I can come up with!🙂

      • Hey, that’s better than anything I was able to come up with! I completely overlooked the possibility that one letter might be a capital “A”. I kept trying to think of words that started with “et”. Interesting… Thanks for giving it a go!🙂

  4. It reads to me as “my poor piera, what a beautiful XXX” and I think the word was some version of angel (angioletto?) but she misspelled it.

  5. Pingback: Hidden mothers, post-mortem, and 1940s Italian-Americans | Glancing Backwards

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