Debunking Victorian ‘Postmortem’ Photographs

Sooner or later, you will run across a collection of Victorian postmortem photographs on the internet. The early days of photography overlapped a period in which families would produce numerous children, but many of them died in childhood, or even infancy. The death toll was high for every age group. We know Victorians had plenty of rituals surrounding death and mourning that seem strange to us. Arranging to have a portrait made of someone who died would often be the only photograph ever taken of them. Photographers even had special equipment used to prop up dead bodies to make them seem alive in these photographs.

Except that most of the previous paragraph is just plain bunk. It's true that pictures were made of the dead, but those are usually of a mother holding a deceased infant, or a body lying in a coffin. The vast majority of postmortem photographs you see in such galleries are either faked or real pictures of living people. They may look dead, but that is explained by how portrait photography came about in the first place. Read how postmortem photography became a thing despite evidence to the contrary at Atlas Obscura.

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