General Question

Jude's avatar

(Morbid question) With Victorian Post-mortem photos, a dead (heh) give away that the person is the deceased is the hands. Why is that?

Asked by Jude (32144points) December 5th, 2011

Rigor mortis? The hands looks extremely rigid.

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15 Answers

Coloma's avatar

Well…dead people are “stiff.” lol

Rigor Mortis sets in and then abates again within about a 24 hour time frame, sooo, since most deaths occured at home in those days the family members immediately began to prepare the bodies for showing and burial. Taking their last, and perhaps only, photos of their deceased loved ones or children/infants.

I’d imagine that the body was prepped, dressed, and viewed and buried within 48 hours or so, maybe 72, but, that’s about as much time as a body has before it starts to get really ugly.

trailsillustrated's avatar

I’ve looked at them too and I think the whole photo gives it away. Espescially the ones where they draw the eyes on to look open. lol

OpryLeigh's avatar

I’ve never really studied these photos but this question has made me curious!

Coloma's avatar

What I notice the most about them, especially the infants and children is that people were so much more used to death touching their lives in those days. The photos of the infants and children with the parents in them, they look so resigned, unemotional.

I read once, somewhere, that a lot of the time parents wouldn’t even name their babies til they were at least a year old as the infant mortality rates were so high.

We are very fearful and shielded from death these days, those people saw it up close and personal and the shadow of death was always upon them.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Can someone link an example? I’m curious too

Coloma's avatar


Just google ” Victorian post mortem photos” and a bunch of images and sites will show up.
Awww.that one little baby is so cute. :-(

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

You know, I wonder why we don’t do that anymore and how that aligns with our ever increasing fear of aging and death.

bkcunningham's avatar

I’ve known people who take photos at funerals; including photos of the deceased now in recent times, @Simone_De_Beauvoir. Some people make fun of them and think it is strange.

Also, my dad’s older brother, who is long dead, had a baby who died of SIDS at six months old. The only photo they had of her was a photo after she died. She is dressed in her Christening gown and is posed for the photo. It hung on my grandparents wall and on my Uncle Marvin and Aunt Opal’s living room wall. I always loved the story of that photo of baby Carol.

Jude's avatar


The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 made portraiture much more commonplace, as many of those who were unable to afford the commission of a painted portrait could afford to sit for a photographysession. This cheaper and quicker method also provided the middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones.

These photographs served less as a reminder of mortality than as a keepsake to remember the deceased. This was especially common with infants and young children; Victorian era childhood mortality rates were extremely high, and a post-mortem photograph might be the only image of the child the family ever had.

The earliest post-mortem photographs are usually close-ups of the face or shots of the full body and rarely include the coffin. The subject is usually depicted so as to seem in a deep sleep, or else arranged to appear more lifelike. It was not uncommon to photograph very young children with a family member, most frequently the mother. Adults were more commonly posed in chairs or even braced on specially-designed frames. Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types.

The effect of life was sometimes enhanced by either propping the subject’s eyes open or painting pupils onto the photographic print, and many early images (especially tintypes and ambrotypes) have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse.

Later examples show less effort at a lifelike appearance, and often show the subject in a coffin. Some very late examples show the deceased in a coffin with a large group of funeral attendees; this type of photograph was especially popular in Europe and less common in the United States.

The practice eventually peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century and died out as “snapshot” photography became more commonplace, although a few examples of formal memorial portraits were still being produced well into the 20th century

Coloma's avatar

I remember a post motem photo my great grandmother had of some great, great, X infinity, dead uncle in his coffin, probably around the early to mid-1900’s. I thought it was creepy as a child.

lillycoyote's avatar

If it was preferred or often attempted to take these photograph’s with the deceased posed in a lifelike position they would have to have been done immediately after death before rigor mortis sets in or after rigor subsided or you wouldn’t be able to pose the person. Rigor mortis makes people really, pretty stiff. But bodies, without refrigeration begin to deteriorate pretty quickly, and start to look pretty dead. So, as @Coloma mentions, I imagine these photographs were probably taken within about 48 hours of death.

These are a little creepy with the deceased propped up and clamped and wire to a post to make them stand up.

I guess photography was relatively new and expensive at the time and people wanted a likeness of their loved ones, to remember them by, something they might not have done or wanted to spend the money on before their loved one died but the post-mortem photo would be their last chance.

bkcunningham's avatar

I miscarried a baby when I was nearly seven months pregnant. I was so distraught, I didn’t want to see or touch my baby. That is something I regret…anyway…my attending nurse told me she was going to take pictures and would keep them if I ever decided that I wanted them, to contact her. One day, about six months after the fact, I told my husband I wondered if she had those pictures. He contacted her for me, got the photos and I still have them today in a memory box. They are tucked in with a pregnancy diary, the baby’s first gift from my oldest sister and other memorable items.

Those photos still comfort me.

Coloma's avatar


I’m so sorry for your loss.

bkcunningham's avatar

It was a long time ago, @Coloma. I appreciate your kind words though. I’ve had a blessed life.

Skaggfacemutt's avatar

Victorian “memento mori” hold a freaky kind of fascination to me. I can always see right away who the dead guy is in the picture. To me the giveaway is the eyes. They are either propped open with toothpicks, closed, or as @trailsillustrated said, they even paint an eye on their closed lids. Shudder….

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