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Taylor Adams

Exploratory Essay
English 1102
The Sad Reality of a Dying Tradition

Dark, dingy and somewhat creepy. A variation of ages ranging from an infant to a thirty
year old adult. Often times family members would join in with flowers or their favorite item.
Dressed up was the only way it could be done properly, and in the house was where majority of
them rested. They werent stashed away or hidden but they filled the familys photo albums and
hung on their walls for everyone to view like ordinary pictures. They were cherished and was the
only permanent image of the deceased loved one for some families. Many forms were created
but most of them were in black and white or a faded brown. These photos were of deceased
family members that once held a place in a loved ones home. Although the Europeans initiated it,
the Americans eventually followed suit and installed a new form of remembrance even before the
first camera was invented in 1840 by Alexander Wolcott(Love to Know Corp., 2001). In my
twenty years of living on this earth I had never heard of Post Mortem photography until two
months ago in this very class. I was instantly taken back after learning about the previous
because I have been into photography for years however after the introduction to this new form
of photography I was instantly intrigued to learn more. Post Mortem photography would most
likely be seen as creepy and would be hard for people to fathom in the 21st Century, and at one
point I was once one of those people. I didnt quite understand why people would want to make
the time and effort to take pictures of their dead loved ones as if they were still living. Although I
believed it was a creepy form of denial I held my judgement as my curiosity peaked. Since I
knew that this particular type of photography had died down in the 20th Century it wasnt
difficult to come up with my inquiry question; Could Post Mortem Photography become popular
again within the 21st Century? Starting out I found numerous articles that seemed to repeat the

Taylor Adams
Exploratory Essay
English 1102
same facts or just mainly had pictures of various deceased people with their family. However I
wished to learn more rooted facts.
This particular type of photography was adapted within the American tradition not too
long after the Europeans discovered it. Post Mortem photography was at its highest point during
the Victorian Era because of the invention of daguerreotype in 1839(Post-Mortem Photography,
1839). Daguerreotype was an old type of photo that was made on a piece of silver or a piece of
copper covered in silver(Merriam-Webster,2015). Since this type of photo was placed on silver it
was rather expensive and mainly utilized by the wealthy. Although the photography was
expensive it was significantly cheaper than paying for an artist to paint a portrait. However the
price began to decrease the more popular this particular type of photography became. Its
importance continued to increase as families continued to lose children and loved ones due to
diseases, and other inconceivable causes. Majority of these photos were of children due to the
fact that the mortal rate was extremely high during this time. Paintings were the first way of
people attempting to remember their loved ones, but in 1839 Louis Daguerres first fixed image
was created. These photos displayed the deceased in a life like pose such as children being
placed in cribs or with their favorite stuff animal. The adults were often propped up in a chair or
pictured standing up. Photography was a cherished item because of its novelty, and it continued
to advance as the years went on. With the invention of photography, people didnt have to wait
hours to paint a picture of someone they loved but instead they could capture a more translucent
photo. All of the previous facts demonstrate the significance of my inquiry question because if
post mortem photography was such a cherished item then why couldnt it become a tradition that
people continue today?
These daguerreotype photos were priced at $5.00 which was more than a weeks pay for
people during this time(Memento Mori, 2011). In 1854, color tinted images were created by

Taylor Adams
Exploratory Essay
English 1102
placing thin negative images on glass and displaying them against a black background(Memento
Mori, 2011). This was known as Ambrotype. Ambrotypes were much cheaper than
dagueereotype and eventually a even cheaper version of this photography was formed called
TinTypes. Tin Types was invented in 1856 and it was made of black iron. Tintypes what initially
made this type of photography universal. Multiple prints of the same picture could be made once
Carte de Visite(CDV) was invented in 1859(Memento Mori, 2011). CDV printed the photograph
on a thin paper made of albumen print, and it was propped in a paper card. This gave families the
opportunity to began mailing these type of photos. Family members were so proud they even
went as far as carrying them in their lockets or carrying them in their pocket mirrors. When
Kodak initially introduced the Brownie camera and photography became more common that is
when Post Mortem photography began to die down. People werent as appreciative of
photography the more common it became, and they stopped viewing them as works of art.
(Memento Mori, 2011) Knowledge about medicines and health care also became more prominent
therefore there were less deaths and the mortality rate decreased tremendously.
As I studied peoples opinions about this kind of photography and cameras in general I
realized that there are mainly two recurring issues that people are split on. Some people believe
that Post Mortem photography could be seen as taboo while others understand that its just a more
permanent way to remember loved ones. Once death became less frequent people in the 20th
century tried to get rid of any reminders that the mortality rate was once extremely high. Death
wasnt viewed as a natural way of life, but instead it was portrayed as an unnatural factor.
Therefore people began to fear it. Until the 20th century, most funerals took place inside of an
individuals home or in a parlor also known as the Death Room.(Memento Mori, 2011) Over
time the Death Room term was buried and the home room was known as the living room
instead. The previous was an example of some people believing that death and Post mortem

Taylor Adams
Exploratory Essay
English 1102
Photography as a taboo. After doing my research it doesnt surprise me that Post Mortem
Photography is a piece of American history that isnt highly talked about. Unless someone does
thorough research, the subject will seem rather dark and unethical. However through research I
understand that this type of photography probably kept most people sane. This photography gave
families a chance to cherish the a lasting image of a loved one before they died. That explains
why they would decorate them and put them in different places. They wanted to remember them
in the best way possible especially since death was so frequent and unexpected. The average age
of an adult during this time period was twenty nine years old(Hub Pages, 2015). Through
research I have learned that people today try to sell Post Mortem photography through sites such
as Ebay however they photoshop them or make them look creepier than they naturally are. These
images were identified as fake because of the different tools the photographers were using. They
would use actual posing stands which during the 19th and 20th century wouldnt hold up the
deceased. In my opinion it is wrong to try and deceive someone into believing they are buying
something that is antique. I also find it strange that people actually go on Ebay looking for this
type of photography. It not only defeats the purpose of the photography but it could be
considered disrespect. As stated previously, this isnt something families did for fun but instead
a way of remembrance. It was taken very seriously during this time however technology has
changed the way people view certain aspects of history such as this one. However one researcher
I found saw Post Mortem photography as I find the post mortem photos to bring a life full circle
so Im not freaked out about it. We should photograph from birth to death and document entire
lives. Its not creepy or morbid its life( Cabinet of Curiosities,2015) . Basically he believes
that it is natural just like death. After reading his opinion, I believe Post Mortem Photography
would be a way for people to get over their fear of death and start seeing it as a natural entity in
life. Technology advancement has caused people not to appreciate simple factors such as a

Taylor Adams
Exploratory Essay
English 1102
picture or a painting of a loved one. However in the 19th century that is all they had. If people
took the time do more research on this topic Im sure they wouldnt necessarily define it as weird
or creepy. Before doing any research I never thought about why a room in a house was called a
living room but now it all makes sense.
These days it is so easy for someone to take a picture of a loved one at any point in their
life however digital cameras werent invented until 1984 therefore people worked with what they
had before then. It is also interesting to me how in todays society as well as back then people are
still heavily influenced by the wealthy. Post Mortem photography started by wealthy families
taking pictures of their loved ones and framing them. The trend eventually trickled down into the
middle and lower class. In the 21st century, people still watch and learn from what the wealthy
initiate even if it is something as simple as what they choose to wear. Photography advances
constantly on various devices from a regular camera to an iphone. There are also so many
different forms of photography and edits that people can use. After doing my research I came to
the conclusion that through the continued advancement of technology and the judgemental
society we live in today Post Mortem photography will most likely never become a popular
tradition.
Technology and the social world determines most of the acceptable beliefs in peoples
lives. Numerous articles and opinions helped shape mine into understanding and compassion, but
not many people arent going to take the time to do their research especially if the main articles
you originally find are calling the photography morbid and a taboo. Its the sad reality of a dying
a tradition.

Taylor Adams
Exploratory Essay
English 1102

MLA Citations
"History of Photography and the Camera (Timeline)." About.com Inventors. About.com, 1 Jan. 2015.
Web. 2 Apr. 2015. <http://inventors.about.com/od/pstartinventions/a/Photography.htm>.

Ruby, Jay. "Post-mortem Portraiture in America." History of Photography. 8.3 (1984): 201-222.
Web.
Cahill, Mike. "The Truth Behind This Photo Is Shocking, But It Used to Happen All of the Time.
OMG..." Viral Nova. 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 2 Apr. 2015. <http://www.viralnova.com/post-mortemvictorian-photographs/>.
"Post-mortem Photography - A History."Postmortem Photography. 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 04 April.
2015. <http://www.post-mortem-photography.com/post-mortem-photography-history.html>.
"Pictures Of The Dead The Truth About Post Mortem Photography | Cabinet of Curiosities |
Oddities, Curios, Antiques, Dundas Antiques, Hamilton Antiques." Cabinet of Curiosities
Oddities Curios Antiques Dundas Antiques Hamilton Antiques. 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.
<http://cabinetofcuriosities.ca/pictures-of-the-dead-the-truth-about-post-mortem-photography/>.
Modugno, Rosana. "The Truth Behind Victorian Post-Mortem Photography." HubPages. 1 Jan.
2015. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://rosanamodugno.hubpages.com/hub/The-Truth-BehindVictorian-Post-Mortem-Photography>.

"Memento Mori ~Victorian Era Postmortem Photography." Ostrobogulous Cackleberries. 11


May 2011. Web. 26 Apr. 2015. <http://ostrobogulation.com/2011/05/11/memento-mori-victorianera-postmortem-photography/>.

Taylor Adams
Exploratory Essay
English 1102
"Webster's Dictionary." Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, 1 Jan. 2015. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.
<http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/entity>.