Memorial Photography

In case you missed our Friday Lecture on Memorial Photography, here is a glimpse at what Assistant Director Kelly Kubiak talked about!  If you are interested in learning more about memorial photography feel free to contact us.  Also do not forget to mark your calendars for this Friday’s lecture on Body Art in the 19th Century.

Without further delay here is Kelly:

Post-mortem photography has experienced a resurgence of interest lately due to the growth of the Internet mixed with the popularity of social media, blogs, and Pinterest.  All too often, memorial and mourning photographs are posted and reposted as weird, creepy, morbid or simply odd habits of the Victorians.  Instead, we really should view them in an entirely different perspective – one that is as inclusive as those who would have purchased them and those who would have been looking at them.  Post-mortem photography (memorial, mourning photography) should be seen in the same manner as their original owners:  love, pride, loss, grief, as a form of sentiment, memorial, and remembrance.


This form of imagery was not created because the photographers or families were macabre or deranged. These photographic images, were created because families were grieving, mourning, their hearts broken.  Looking at these images it is easy to forget that they were someone’s child, brother, sister, mother, father. Photographs were taken because hearts were broken, grieving.   Above all else, the individuals captured within daguerreotypes and photographs, were dearly loved and their owners desired to remember them and these images truly reflect the owners sentiments and desire to remember.


Anthropologist, Jay Ruby, concluded in his ten-year research that there is very little dialogue to correspond with the photographs.  All too often, the individuals, families, and photographers remain anonymous.  Therefore, today’s viewer must create their own narrative regarding who the individual(s) were that are in the photograph, how they died, who their family was, how the daguerreotypes, photographs, stereo cards, or carte-de-visites became available for us to see. Through each successive generation, stories may have been lost or forgotten and therefore, the objects find homes in antique shops or garage sales. All too often they have lost their identity and become anonymous individuals and we are left to create their story. Therefore, when we gaze upon these images today, let us attempt to view them not with macabre interest but instead, with the understanding that they were essentially a personal and intimate part of everyday life, death and grief.


In Securing the Shadow, Jay Ruby, determined that three basic styles of post-mortem developed in the nineteenth century: last sleep, alive but dead and the use of coffins and caskets.  Intermingled within these three styles are single or group portraits; pets and the development of memorial forms and styles.


Last Sleep

This form dominates the decades from 1840 – 1880.  The deceased resembles a sleeping individual, therefore it is often easy to overlook them as mourning photographs – especially those involving children and infants.  Posed to literally resemble a sleeping person, bodies are often placed upon bedding, couches, chairs or rest in the arms of a parent or sibling.  Generally, the only distinguishing feature in many of these images of deceased children is the facial expression of their parents.


“William” c.1850

Alive But Dead

The ‘alive but dead’ style incorporate persons posed in a variety of settings that someone alive would have been posed, but they are in fact, dead.  There is often an attempt to disguise death and allow the owner to remember the deceased not as dead, but eternally sleeping.  A variety of methods was used in an effort to pose the deceased, many can be considered studio ‘props’ – items such as furniture, couches, carriages, family or even mechanisms used to hold a living sitter in place was often perfect to hold a deceased individual.



c. 1870, author unknown; Netherlands


Coffins / Caskets

During the 1880s we begin to see an emergence of coffins and caskets in the photographs.  With the advent of daguerreotypes and photography, photographers and mourners were able to take advantage of the time it took to build a coffin, as they were not ready-made items as they are now.  Therefore, photographers were able to rush to a home and take ‘likeness’ of the deceased or the mourners were able to bring the deceased to the photographer’s studio, which is why in the early years there is an absence of coffins.  By the end of the nineteenth century we see not only images of simple coffins but we see the emergence of more costly caskets and funerals.  Important to note is the changing use of coffin into casket:  a ‘coffin’ is simply a long narrow box used to hold and to bury the dead; whereas a ‘casket’ is a small ornamental box designed to hold precious items such as a jewel or souvenir.


Memory in Mourning

By the end of the century a new form the emergence of mourning as opposed viewing the deceased within the photograph.  Women are most often within this form (this does not

mean that men did not pose in this format, simply we may be unaware).  The focus and gaze now has shifted from that of the deceased to that of the mourner.  For many mourners, mourning becomes fashionable in keeping the memory ongoing.  Ruby discovered that in 1887, one widow wrote that “…mourning is a form of memory; when we mourn, we keep our loved ones alive in memory.”  Memory is perpetuated through the creation of mourning cards, photographs and stereo cards that could be saved and sent to family in America and Europe.  In many of these later forms we see memorialization of family, presidents, politicians and royalty.  Photo memory cards now can superimpose the image of the deceased (taken while they were alive) with that of memorial wreaths or family.


Memorial Cards (carte-de-visite and cabinet cards)

This form became popular from 1880 – 1905 and were often mass-produced.  Studios were able to create them with the deceased’s name and personal information provided by the family.  The Burns Collection describes this form of memorial and commemoration as the most common form of the nineteenth century mourning artifact.  Over time, we begin to see that these cards become mailed to family across America and to family members throughout the globe.



Memorial stereo card of Abraham Lincoln



Throughout the century we begin to see how much pets have become part of our family dynamic.  Dogs, cats and in one case, a squirrel by the name of Genoushe*, have become immortalized by their owners.

11th mourning.png



In the last few decades, there has been a resurgence of interest regarding these types of imagery.  Because of great sources such as, the Stanley Burns Collection and through the collections of libraries, museums and archives we have a deeper understanding of their importance in the daily lives of those in the nineteenth century and even today.  To view a wider variety of these forms, please review some of the more notable online sources below.  But when viewing them, remember that these images were created for families and individuals that had experienced the loss of a beloved family member (child, sibling, parent, husband, wife) or friend.  As mourning traditions and rituals, so too did the likeness of the deceased.  Ranging from sleeping to temporarily resting within a photograph to the creation of the memorial cards.   Memorial photography extends beyond viewing fashionable clothing or caskets; sitters placed within a group or individualized portraits – they have the ability to remind viewers to see this form not as odd, weird or bizarre habits of the Victorians, but rather more importantly, it was an effort to remember someone that was dearly loved, cherished and greatly missed.


For this blog, I have made every effort to use online images that are within the public domain and free from copyright infringement.  There are many websites, Pinterest accounts and blogs that may not have the proper authority to reproduce images, therefore, please see some of the sites listed below as their images.


Stanley Burns Collection and Archive


Eastman Museum:



The Thanatos Archive (by subscription):

*Genushe can be found at:


What would you like to learn more about within the realm of memorial photography?  Do you have any memorial photography in your family collection?


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