The Early Practice of Photographing the Dead

Photo, September 1907.
Photo, September 1907.

A few weeks after my grandfather passed away, the family met at his home to begin the unpleasant and arduous task of sorting through a near-century’s worth of belongings, papers and nicknacks.

Each desk drawer pulled out revealed a treasure chest of oddities, trinkets and items we never knew he even owned: A bronze star stuffed deep into a nightstand, a deed signed by his father in the 1800s and cufflinks made of West Virginia coal.  These were all fascinating finds, but the one stash that made all of gasp was a collection of photos acquired at funeral homes, wakes and bedsides of deceased relatives and friends.

A grisly sight to stumble upon in modern America; however, not too long ago, the practice of photographing the dead was strangely common.

Like all forms of art, photography is in a constant state of evolution and a combination of economics, early technology and mourning, created a climate more than a century ago where the practice of capturing still images of the deceased was highly sought after.

An American male born in 1850 should not have expected to live any longer than the age of 38.3.  A century and a half ago death was far more common and in deed a far more visible element of life.

At the same time, photography was still in its infancy and early cameras were expensive, requiring long exposure times.  Because of these factors, most children would never see a camera growing up.

Sadly, with childhood mortality rates at tragic levels, it was fairly common for families to lose children.  Set to capitalize on this grief, as well as provide a memorial to grieving mothers, photographers began to actively market post-mortem photographic services in the days following the American Civil War.

Lying completely motionless while the long exposure was captured, deceased people made the ideal subjects and families who would have never forked over the money to photograph their living children were ready to create an image of their child that would soon be buried.

In the years that followed, as cameras became more common and families could afford photographs of its members alive, the notion of photographing the dead grew to fall out of good taste, though the practice continued in many places, including Appalachia well into the 1980s.

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