Myths About Victorian Post-Mortem Photographs

High mortality rates converged with the development of photography in the Victorian era. Along with extended mourning rituals and mementos, photography offered a way to remember a lost loved one long after they were buried. In fact, it may well have been the only photograph taken of the person. However, most post-mortem photography showed the deceased laid out for a funeral. The very idea of taking someone's portrait after they've died led to a rash of post-mortem photographs shared on the internet.

Fake post-mortem photos, whether categorized in error or intentionally mislabeled to sell for a profit, have in recent years become widespread on the Internet. They fill online galleries of Victorian oddities and accumulate on Pinterest and Instagram—even otherwise reputable websites have contributed to the myths. Though unfortunate, it’s also understandable: there’s clearly something compelling about a lurid, not-so-distant culture engaging with death in a way we don’t.

In truth, the propped-up people in Victorian “post-mortems” look alive for a much simpler reason: because they are.

The key here is "propped-up." The story is that professional photographers used elaborate stands and other devices specifically for post-mortem photography, which is not the case at all. The root of the myth is explained with a primer in early portraiture at Atlas Obscura.

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