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RexCredo's avatar

How did the tradition of photographing the dead loved ones get started?

Asked by RexCredo (142points) June 11th, 2010

How did the tradition of photographing the dead loved ones get started, how is it called and does it still remain?

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11 Answers

Jude's avatar

Victorian Era.


Jude's avatar

Even though in some of these photos it’s looks as though the individual is sleeping, they’re dead. You usually can tell by their hands (their hands are odd/stiff).

Jeruba's avatar

But death masks—essentially an earlier version of the same thing—go way, way back.

Jude's avatar

Thank-you, @Jeruba. :)

dolcevita88's avatar

It’s called postmortem photography, and first started with the daguerreotype (the first practical photograph system). It was just to honor and remember the deceased, since photography was a new concept, and was the only real way of documenting.

dolcevita88's avatar

@Jeruba: Studied photography but never heard of that! Interesting! Good link.

NIrishRockerChick's avatar

I have never heard of this before.

netgrrl's avatar

It wasn’t unusual at that time that there were few photos taken, maybe a wedding photo. So it was that last opportunity to have one.

Of course at that time people had a much closer and natural relationship with their dead. They were often washed & dressed by family, and put on display in the parlor at home.

Soon of course it became the practice to whisk away the departed as quickly as possible, more as a money-making scheme for doctors & funeral parlor owners than anything else.

There’s a very good book called “Stiff” by Mary Roach that deals with the history of how we treated our dead, some of the old customs (sitting up with the dead overnight was more to make sure someone was really dead than anything else) and what the thinking was.

Kayak8's avatar

I have some family photos of the deceased. There is also a good book called Wisconsin Death Trip that includes such photos (my sister gave me this book as a gift so you can kind of understand my sense of morbid curiosity).

@Jeruba Have you ever noticed how much Josef Moroder-Lusenberg (the death mask photo from your wiki link) looks like the British comedian John Cleese?

anartist's avatar

They are dead. They usually look dead. But sometimes these photos were the only remembrance of a family member people would have. Family photos were a rarity then, especially with families of modest means.

ParaParaYukiko's avatar

@anartist Yes, and the fact that infant mortality rates were much higher back then (notice how many of the photos in @jjmah‘s link are of children). Before photography was invented, the average person had no way of remembering what their loved one, especially a child, looked like before they died outside of their own mind, and we all know memory fades over time. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, daguerreotype photography had become inexpensive enough so that an average family could afford a photograph or two.

However, “memento mori” or “reminder of death” had been around for long before the invention of photography. Memento mori, to be more precise, does not always refer to photos or imagery of a deceased person, but often included artwork of generic skulls or other symbols of death. Memento mori was supposed to be a reminder of one’s own mortality.

For things more similar to what you’re talking about, think about the ancient Egyptians and the elaborate depictions of pharaohs they created on their sarcophagi. Though stylized, they are meant to be a way of identifying the individual through facial features, jewelery, etc. And, as @Jeruba mentioned, death masks were being made by the ancient Romans as well.

Wanting to immortalize the deceased by keeping some sort of semblance of the person – either a mask, painting or photograph – seems to be part of human nature. It’s not a question of how the tradition started, but how it changed due to the technology available to a culture at any point in time.

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