Preserving the Dead: Postmortem Photographs and Funeral Practices in 19th-Century America

Anthony Winslow Enns


The rise of the modern funeral industry in 19th-century America introduced new forms of visual display that were designed to eliminate signs of bodily decay, and these practices were remarkably similar to postmortem photographs, in which bodies were cosmetically enhanced and posed in a life-like manner before the camera. Postmortem photography can thus be understood as an intermediate stage toward the modern disappearance of death, yet this practice has not entirely gone away, as postmortem photographs are still used to preserve the dead by creating the illusion of presence rather than confirming the reality of absence. This paper will explore the ways in which photography mediates the experience of death through a closer examination of the parallels between funeral practices and postmortem photographs.


photography; death; mourning; embalming; funerals

Full Text:



Ames, Kenneth L. 1981. “Ideologies in Stone: Meanings in Victorian Gravestones.” Journal of Popular Culture 14, no. 4 (Spring): 641-656.

Anonymous. 1855. “Life from the Dead.” The Photographic and Fine Art Journal 8, no. 7 (July): 224.

Anonymous. 1865. “The Funeral.” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 2, 4.

Aries, Philippe. 1974. “The Reversal of Death: Changes in Attitudes Toward Death in Western Societies.” American Quarterly 26, no. 5 (December): 536-560.

Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Batchen, Geoffrey. 2004. Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Bazin, André. 1960. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Trans. Hugh Gray. Film Quarterly 13, no. 4 (Summer): 4-9.

Borgo, Melania, Marta Licata, and Silvia Iorio. 2016. “Post-mortem Photography: The Edge Where Life Meets Death?” Human and Social Studies 5, no. 2 (July): 103-115.

Brown, Nicola. 2009. “Empty Hands and Precious Pictures: Post-mortem Portrait Photographs of Children.” Australasian Journal of Victorian Studies 14, no. 2: 8-24.

Burgess, Nathan G. 1855. “Taking Portraits After Death.” The Photographic and Fine-Art Journal 8, no. 3 (March): 80.

Darrall, William C. 1981. Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography. Gettysburg, PA: W. C. Darrah.

Eberle, Scott G. 2005. “Memory and Mourning: An Exhibit History.” Death Studies 29, no. 6 (July-August): 535-557.

Gihon, John L. 1871. “Curious Photographic Experiences.” The Philadelphia Photographer 8, no. 95 (November): 349-352.

Harrison, Robert Pogue. 2003. The Dominion of the Dead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hickman, Tom. 2002. Death: A User’s Guide. London: Ebury Press.

Hohenschuh, W. P. 1900. The Modern Funeral: Its Management. Chicago: Trade Periodical Company.

Huntington, Richard, and Peter Metcalf. 1991. Celebrations of Death: The Anthropology of Mortuary Ritual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jackson, Charles O., ed. 1977. Passing: The Vision of Death in America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Jacobs, Joseph. 1899. “The Dying of Death.” Fortnightly Review 72: 264-269.

Johnson, Joy, S. Marvin Johnson, James H. Cunningham, and Irwin J. Weinfeld. 1985. A Most Important Picture. Omaha: Centering Corporation.

Krauss, Rosalind. 1984. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Limbo, Rana K., and Sara Rich Wheeler. 1986. When a Baby Dies: A Handbook for Healing and Helping. La Crosse, WI: Resolve Through Sharing.

Linkman, Audrey. 2006. “Taken from Life: Post-Mortem Portraiture in Britain 1860-1910.” History of Photography 30, no. 4 (Winter): 309-347.

Metz, Christian. 1985. “Photography and Fetish.” October 34 (Autumn): 81-90.

Nygard, Paul David, and Catherine H. Reilly. 2003. “The American Family and the Processing of Death Prior to the 20th Century.” In Handbook of Death and Dying, Volume 2: The Response to Death, edited by Clifton D. Bryant, 567-574. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Orr, Charlie E. 1873. “Post-mortem Photography.” The Philadelphia Photographer 10, no. 115 (July): 200-201.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1998. “What Is a Sign?” In The Essential Peirce: Selected Philosophical Writings, Volume 2 (1893-1913), edited by the Peirce Edition Project, 4-10. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Rinhart, Floyd, and Marion Rinhart. 1967. American Daguerreian Art. New York: Clarkson N. Potter.

---. 1981. The American Daguerreotype. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Ruby, Jay. 1995. Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Schlereth, Thomas J. 1991. Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life. New York: Harper Perennial.

Schwiebert, Pat, and Paul Kirk. 1981. When Hello Means Goodbye: A Guide for Parents Whose Child Dies Before Birth, at Birth or Shortly After Birth. Portland, OR: Perinatal Loss.

Sekula, Allan. 1983. “Photography Between Labour and Capital.” In Mining Photographs and Other Pictures 1948-1968: A Selection from the Negative Archives of Shedden Studio, Glace Bay, Cape Breton, edited by Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and Robert Wilkie, 193-268. Halifax: Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and the University College of Cape Breton Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1977. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Southworth, Albert S. 1873. “An Address to the National Photographic Association.” The Philadelphia Photographer 10, no. 117 (September): 277-280.

Stannard, David E., ed. 1975. Death in America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Stephenson, John S. 1985. Death, Grief and Mourning: Individual and Social Realities. New York: Free Press.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Copyright (c) 2020 Anthony Winslow Enns

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.


Evaluation systems:

ERIH PLUS  (The European Reference Index for the Humanities and the Social Sciences)

LATINDEX e ProQuest / CSA (Cambridge Scientific Abstracts)

Journal of Communication and Languages |  ISSN 2183-7198

 Licença Creative Commons

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.