As a family historian with an interest in history, I am familiar with what is called the post-mortem photo. I refer to the post-mortem photo as a casket photo but it is also known as a memorial portrait. Post-mortem photos were popular during the Victorian period through the early part of the 20th century. In many cases, the post-mortem photo was the only photograph taken of a person due to the high cost of commissioned portrait painting.
A 19th century family in bereavement hired a photographer to take photos of their recently-deceased family member. Many of the photos showed the deceased family member lying on his or her deathbed or in a casket. The deceased were also propped up in portraits to appear as if still alive and it is sometimes difficult to tell that the subject was deceased at the time the photo was taken. Imagine posing with a dead family member for a group portrait. Interesting examples of post-mortem photos can be found in the book Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy. Warning: Some of the images can be disturbing to those who are sensitive to issues involving death.
I have acquired a few post-mortem photos of distant relatives over the years. These photos are dated c. 1930s-1940s – a late period for American post-mortem photography.
Post-mortem photography is not a custom that is practiced in current day America. Or so I thought.
In early 2005, I arrived early in the morning at the funeral home for the final service for my husband Richard. I entered the viewing room to find Richard’s best friend G. taking photos of Richard in the casket.
I asked him sharply, “G., what are you doing?” (I knew what he was doing but it seemed creepy to me.)
In his usual way, he had no explanation as to why he was taking casket photos of Richard. I wondered if the custom of photographing the deceased continued in his family.
“G., please take your photos quickly before his brother and sister arrive. I don’t want them to see what you’re doing.”
I didn’t think Richard’s family would understand or condone the photo session since they had their own customs concerning death and this wasn’t one of them. I couldn’t understand why he needed the photos. He had many photos of Richard taken during his lifetime.
Later that day, another relative took photos of the military and religious service at graveside. Although I was surprised when I was told that these photos were taken, these images didn’t bother me as much as the taking of the casket photos.
G. and I have never talked about the casket photos he had taken. I don’t think I want to see the photos. I know that someday someone is going to find the casket photos on one of G.’s memory cards. At that time, he’ll have some explaining to do. I’ll be interested in finally hearing his response.