Post-Mortem Photography

In the twenty-first century taking photographs of the dead is considered morbid and appalling. Viewing a dead loved one lying in a nursing home bed or casket is one of those memories that don’t need to be backed up by a photograph. Personally, I have tried to erase those memories from my brain but during the Victorian Era, taking a photograph of the dearly departed was a common practice. The image was meant to be a loving keepsake to memorialize the dead, and in many cases the post-mortem photograph was the only image the family ever had of their loved one. Many photographs feature a dead child in the arms of its mother or father. Some try to show the loved one as if they were still alive, sitting upright in a chair, dressed in their Sunday best, while others show the family member lying on a sofa or bed as if they were only sleeping. Although this ritual seems creepy to us now, 150 years ago, posing the dead for one last beautiful photograph was done with love, dignity, and respect.

The Thanatos Archive

The Thanatos Archive

The Thanatos Archive

Photography was a new technology in the nineteenth century. Two pioneers in the development of photography were Louis Daguerre in 1837 (Daguerreotype), and George Eastman who founded the Eastman Dry Plate Company in 1880. In 1888, Mr. Eastman introduced to the general public the Kodak Camera with the slogan, “you press the button, we do the rest.” On January 19, 2012, Eastman Kodak Company filed for bankruptcy. The photographic giant was replaced with new technology and so we enter the Digital Age. The point is: technology changes our rituals, the way we view ourselves and the world, and the way we live and die.

The history of how we mourn our dead has changed from century to century. The overwhelming grief is still the same but the time allotted to grieve has changed. During the Victorian Era, a widow was expected to wear black for two and a half years after the death of her husband. Today, that same widow would be allowed three days off from work and within a month, she would be expected to “move on” and “get over it.”

What is always interesting to me is how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable among us. I suppose if we don’t have any respect for a certain segment of the population while they are living, we certainly don’t care how they are treated and disposed of after death. What follows are two examples of how the “abnormal” were treated after death in 1897 and 1913. The first article involves the advancement of medical science from PATHOLOGICAL INSTITUTE OF THE NEW YORK STATE HOSPITALS 1897 for the Insane, later renamed the New York State Psychiatric Institute, (Dr. Ira Van Gieson) in 1929; the second highlights indifference at Gowanda State Hospital. Below these are more interesting links including two articles from the United Kingdom in 2006 and 2010 that discuss how “normal” deceased hospital patients were treated.

“There are several things of particular value, but above all it is the brains of the abnormal classes that we want, for one of the future duties of the anthropologist is to determine whether or not, and how, the brains of the insane, the criminal, etc., differ structurally from the normal. We want all the brains, at least all those left after the requirements of pathological research have been satisfied, without discrimination or limit in numbers. Next after the brain, come the anomalies of the various other organs…Many of the patients who die in State hospitals are friendless or paupers, and have to be buried at a comparatively large expense to the State. Such a burial, the Secretary of the Commission in Lunacy kindly informs me, averages in each case about $12. The body is usually given to an undertaker and he disposes of it according to his best convenience. In some instances a medical college secures the cadaver, instead of an undertaker. The fact is, that after such a body is removed from the hospital it is never any more heard of.” (1)

GOWANDA STATE HOSPITAL – The Gowanda Committee visited the hospital August 27, 1913, and made a thorough inspection…The two greatest needs of the hospital at the present time are a new morgue and an addition to the bakery. The place now used for the care of bodies pending burial is a basement room lighted by artificial light, small, and without interior equipment. What autopsies are performed by the medical staff have to be made in this inconvenient place. Whenever several deaths occur within a short interval, it is often necessary to pile them up around the room and friends and relatives are often shocked to find their dead in this unsuitable place. This hospital had forty-two deaths last year. The scientific work at the hospital, as well as the consideration of friends and relatives of patients, demand the construction of a proper place for the care of bodies of patients.” (2)

1. Contributions From The Pathological Institute Of The New York State Hospitals, Ira Van Gieson, Director, Volumes I & II, 1896-1897, Collated for the Pathological Institute by Amalie Busck, Librarian, State Hospitals Press, Utica, N.Y., 1898, Pages 1-18.

2. State of New York State Hospital Commission, Twenty-Fifth Annual Report, October 1, 1912 to September 30, 1913, Transmitted to the Legislature January 29, 1914, Albany: J.B. Lyon Company, Printers, 1914, Page 471.

If we no longer treat the dead with dignity, what hope is there for the living? Daily Mail, UK, June 2006.

Dead body was left on bed next to me for eight hours: Patient tells of horror on packed ward. Mail Online, UK, March 2010.

Columbia University Medical Center – Columbia Psychiatry