Update and The Beauty of Post-Mortem Photography

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The George Eastman Museum, taken by myself as I walked into work!

So things have been a little quiet here at Bones Don’t Lie… but exciting things have been happening! I’m now officially a Dr., I’ve moved to New York, and I’ve started a fantastic new job at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY! The museum is located in the historic home of George Eastman, the pioneer of popular photography and film who created Kodak. The museum itself holds one of the world’s largest collections of photography, film and related technology, and is a leader in film preservation and photographic conservation.

I am honored to join the team as their Manager of Online Engagement. Now, you may ask… what does mortuary archaeology have to do with photography? Great question! The two are actually more related than you think. First, photos have played an important role in capturing and preserving death in the past, as a memento mori and as a scientific record. Second, both working at a museum and conducting archaeological work is about preserving heritage and keeping it safe for future generations. Finally, both use technology in creative ways to engage the public and share materials. So today, let’s talk about one of my favorite photo/death related topics: post-mortem photography.

Unidentified Photographer. [Woman sitting in high-backed chair, holding deceased child] ca. 1860. Daguerreotype with applied color. From the George Eastman Museum.

Post-mortem photography is the practice of taking photographs of a deceased family member, or of the living posing with the deceased relative. This trend became more common after the invention of  daguerreotype photography in 1839, which made taking portraits and photos less expensive and more commonplace. Post-mortem photography peaked during the late 19th century, and by the early 20th century had gone out of fashion. Why was it fashionable you may ask? Why do something so seemingly morbid? Photography was not common- people didn’t have cameras on their mobile devices (or any mobile devices for that matter), and the photographer was really a specialist in their field.

Since it was expensive, time consuming and required finding a photographer, family members would only have limited opportunities to take a photo. Death, therefore, was an opportunity to have a family portrait, and would be the last opportunity to have the entire family together. These individuals wanted to take photos of and with the deceased, rather than have no photos of them whatsoever. Further, most of these individuals would have died at home with their family, and therefore most people with familiar with death. The people are often arranged so that they appear to be alive, propped up by furniture or other family members, or they are pictured as in a deep peaceful sleep. The discomfort many people today feel with this type of photograph speaks to the major change in our society’s lack of relationship and unfamiliarity with death.

As cameras became more common place in the home, photographs of the deceased were taken by family members rather than being posed by a professional. Eventually, thanks to George Eastman, photography became so commonplace, people had photographs of their family members while they were alive, and no longer needed the post-mortem ones. While Eastman made photography more accessible in the early 20th century, death was becoming increasingly medicalized and shifted from the house to the hospital. This led to increasing discomfort of the living with the dead, and the decline of the art of post-mortem photography. It isn’t completely gone, however… post-mortem photography continues as an art for those who cannot necessarily capture pictures with the living, or those who want a final photograph of their loved one.

The final word on this is that it isn’t morbid- it is a beautiful form of remembrance for which we’ve lost the cultural understanding for and should be viewed within its proper context. In my new position, I’m excited to learn more about photography and film, and hopefully see some fantastic post-mortem photos! If you’re interested in learning more about this type of work, you can read this blog post from the George Eastman Museum blog, and see a large collection of this type of photography from the Thanatos Archive.

3 responses to “Update and The Beauty of Post-Mortem Photography

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