Postmortem photography, photographing a deceased person, was a common practice in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These photographs were often the only ones taken of their subjects and much pride and artistry went into them. It is astounding that although postmortem photographs make up the largest group of nineteenth-century American genre photographs, they are largely unseen, and unknown. Today we struggle to avoid the topic of death; as a result we have closed the door on those images, which reflect an American culture in which death and mourning played a visible and active part.
What emerges from these images is a vivid visual history of the changes in American customs. We can see the change in death concepts and funerary practices, from the image of death as a stark Puritan journey for a sinner to the late Victorian beautification of death and its interpretation as a restful sleep for a redeemed soul.
These photographs were a common aspect of American culture, a part of the mourning and memorialization process. Surviving families were proud of these images and hung them in their homes, sent copies to friends and relatives, wore them as lockets or carried them as pocket mirrors. Nineteenth-century Americans knew how to respond to these images. Today there is no culturally normative response to postmortem photographs. Discussions of death in books are prolific, and we are accustomed to images of death as part of our daily news; but actual death, as a part of private lives, has become a shameful and unspoken subject.Excerpted with permission from Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America by Dr. Stanley B. Burns of The Burns