Monday, 31 December 2012

The Victorian Way of Death

She looks so peaceful lying there, doesn't she?

Maybe she's having an afternoon nap, before getting ready for a Christmas ball. Any moment, her eyes will open and she will smile, stretch her arms and...

Er, no, actually, she won't. Why not? Because she's dead. Yes, I'm serious.

You see, they did things differently in Victorian times. The advent of the marvellous new invention of photography, meant that, even in death, you could have a lasting memento of your loved one. Not only that, you could even pose with them. The only drawback there could be that, while your beloved recently departed was in perfect focus, the long exposure time would likely result in some slight movement from the living subjects rendering them a little blurred, as in this macabre example.

In the case of a deceased baby, the photograph would be the only chance to capture the image of the child so eagerly anticipated and so quickly lost. Dead babies and small children were often posed along with favourite toys.

Should a mother die in childbirth, she was often pictured with her face shrouded, her child on her lap.

In the example below, a whole family has been laid together, while in the one below, a couple hold their deceased children:

As we can also see from this last example, the practice continued well into the Twentieth Century.

It seems all too macabre to us now but, bearing in mind the high cost of photography, coupled with the fact that few families would have owned cameras, it must have been seen as an important part of the grieving process for those who chose this type of Memento Mori.
A mere 100+ years on, how times - and customs - have changed!


  1. Fascinating post. As weird as it seems, I agree it must have aided in the grieving process. But...ugh! I can't imagine ever wanting to look at the photo. I regret the times I've paid respects to an open casket of someone I loved. That ain't the way I want to remember them. To each their own.

  2. Interesting, sad, and a little creepy.

  3. Thanks Keith and Mike. I agree, it is more than a little creepy, and mostly a forgotten tradition. How far we have moved on in a relatively short time. I, for one, am pleased about that too!

  4. I knew about the custom of photographing dead children because my mother always said she didn't want photos of us sleeping because they looked too much like we were dead. I didn't know that adults were posed for death portraits. A very interesting and informative post. Enjoyed reading it.

  5. Yikes, that is creepy. I agree with Keith on both counts: Not wanting to ever see the photo as well as regretting the visitation of the open caskets I've seen. Interesting though.
    Thanks for sharing, Catherine.
    Happy New Year!


  6. Thank you, Angela and Jimmy. Happy New Year to you too!

  7. I wonder which modern customs will seem equally strange one day. This was fascinating. Thank you.

  8. Thanks for hte post! It's very informative. I'm one of those macabre people who actually think it's fascinating to look at those Victorian photographs of the dead, but I can't imagine wanting to stare at a photograph of one of my loved ones passed away. Still, I understand where they come from, and if you have no other memorabilia of a child who's passed away except a post-mortem picture, it can probably be very helpful in the grieving progress!

    My Blog

  9. I am not sure how I ended up on this subject, but now I am completely fascinated! I like how you have explained a little about the Victorian times, I was trying to explain to my kids and this made it a little easier. My kids are teens! I let them know in different ways how they should be considered lucky to live in these times, so many 100+ years ago didn't live as long; if they survived childbirth itself.

  10. Hi Katherine, I Have a statement and a small request. First, with all due respect, regarding the picture of the baby with the hidden mother, there is a debate as to weither or not the baby or covered person is actually a pm picture. There are thousands of these type of covered mother(?) and baby portraits and most people try to say they are post-mortum pictures of dead babies propped up by their mothers. Which I disagree with when it's obvious the child is alive, like the above picture. But I also disagree that it is a picture of a mother/ child and the covered mother died in childbirth. The baby above is obviously is not a newborn, and is 6 months or older. I seriously doubt they are going to save a decomposing 6 month decaying body just so they could cover her up and not take the picture with her image, and just use her as a prop stand for a picture of her baby. I believe the covered human is more likely an assistant or family member trying to hold the child still so they could take the portrait since in those days, it took at least 10 minutes for the camera to take the shot. More humane then tying the child down. The other pictures you have shown are definetly PM pics. Not creepy, but beautiful. They had more respect for the dead then, now the dead/ corpses are taboo.
    My request: I am doing research on the deaths of entire families due to natural disasters, and the picture of the family has caught my attention. It is obvious that it was not deseases which was very common in the 1800s. I believe it is possible that this family is connected to an event I am collecting evidence on. Would you happen to know the source of this picture or any info?

    1. Mothers were NEVER shrouded because they were dead. They were only there to help keep their children quiet and still for the photo. Later they were mat themselves out. How stupid would it be to cover the head of someone whose memory you were trying to preserve?

  11. Thank you for contributing, Xochitl. You make some interesting points. Regarding your request - I'm afraid I couldn't find an authenticated attribution for this photograph. It is, like the others, available in various locations on the internet. The only source that gives any information states they were probably wiped out by some disease, such as cholera, but I'm afraid I cannot confirm this one way or the other. Nor, sadly, can I provide the names of the family members. Sorry I can't be more help and thank you again for your comments.

  12. So much misinformation above. Let me just tackle one item. The woman with here head covered is what is referred to as a "hidden mother". The mother only wanted a photo of her children so she covered herself to help keep them calm during a shutter exposure that could last up to 45 seconds......a time period in which any movement would blur the photo. Later, she would mat herself out of the photo. You can find many examples in Victorian photography. See:

  13. The photo at the bottom are actors portraying the 1940's era and the children are SLEEPING on their laps .

  14. The top woman was posed as if sleeping. It was an artistic photograph.