In going through family photographs, particularly well-archived collections, you may come across a picture of one of your deceased ancestors laid out in their casket. You shudder and quickly put the picture to one side. Why would your family have once done such a thing? Others among us seek out such pictures, collecting them - just like some of us collect old soda bottles or books. To understand some of our families old habits, we have to go back in time and try to understand how society viewed some things. Even items that we take for granted today.
Now I am not saying that we take death for granted. Many of us are not looking forward to that eventuality at all; even though we realize one day we will cease to exist ... becoming a memory for our family to cherish in their heart. Pictures, though, at one time were a luxury. Think about what a picture of a person is: their image caught in time. They don't age and their features are present for you to gaze upon. A memory ... caught in time and kept alive when you think about it.
Some families, prior to photography, would commission a painting. Sometimes, if they could afford to do so, also asking the artist for miniatures. Wealthier families could commission a postmortem likeness of a young wife or small child. Again, a way to keep the memory alive within that family of the person. The postmortem images featured the person in what would outwardly appear as a typical family setting.
Yet, if you look closer, the artist generally shared symbolic images associated with death. To let you, the person gazing at the image, know that this had been painted after the person's passing. Daguerreotypes eventually replaced the paintings. Enabling families, regardless of income or status, a chance to place a picture of their loved one on the grave. A custom still practiced even today by some people; although a few of them may not know the depth of the history of such a practics or part of its history.
The picture would be placed in a special holder on the headstone. Sometimes the pictures would been ones of the person taken while still alive. Yet that was not always the case. For a while people reverted back to the custom of having a postmortem likeness created; only this time through means of photography. Most often these were centered around the death of a child.
We may have seen a sleeping child photographed in his or her Sunday best and holding a favorite toy while lying on a couch. Not realizing at first glance that the child had not been caught napping by the photographer. We are looking at a child who had been posed for one last picture before placed in a casket for burial. Some postmortem pictures show the person lying in their casket. My mother had a set of postmortem images of twins who had died within days of each other; the children in their caskets - one pictured on the porch of the house, the other in the living room. These were usually taken where the person was lying in state; which would have been at home. It was very rarely that a picture would been taken at the grave itself with the corpse shown in it's coffin.
For these postmortem pictures, the photographers - like the painters before them - showed the person in somewhat natural setting. Therefore the corpse would have been posed to appear natural also and the eyes would have been open in some of these pictures. So there are some postmortem pictures that are not as easy to discern as being taken after the child's death. The setting itself would hold the clues to tell if the picture was taken before or after death. If the parents were posed holding the child while dressed in black, wearing what is termed funeral gloves, and surrounded by flowers . . . then you can deduce that it was taken after the child's passing. Although this may sound cold, cruel, or unrealistic to some of you; please recall this was a different time in society and these images, in many cases, the only way one generation could share with future generations that child's existence and their love for that child. In some cases, these were the only image some families had of that child, unable to afford a photograph of the child prior to death. These postmortem images were not always easy on the pocketbook, possibly costing a few months' wages, and we may not fully ever understand the significance these images had for that family.
In the late 19th century to mid-twentieth century, cemeteries became an object of photography . . . an extension of the landscape theme Cards for sterograph viewers were bundled and sold; some cemetaries were even featured on postcards! Even today, although it is not practiced as much as it was earlier in time, some photographers spend afternoons photographing cemeteries and a few families will still go to have picnics near a family plot. Some cemeteries host tours or have maps available for those curious enough to want to walk through the grounds. Crown Hill in Indianapolis host tours; while Sleepy Hollow in Concord Masschussetts has a steady stream of tourists walking through to take pictures of some of the graves [e.g. Louisa May Alcott and her family's plot]. And let's not forget that James Dean's headstone being a victim of fans or the people would watch Rudolph Valentino's resting site hoping to catch a glimpse of the mysterious woman who brought him flowers for years after his death.
Even though we may cringe at the thought of a picture taken of a dead child before their burial; we do have a fascination about death and those who have passed away before us.
Old Burial Grounds of New Jersey: A Guide
Janice Kohl Sarapin
Rutgers University Press
Sleeping Beauty: A History Of Memorial Photography [Out Of Print]
(Courtesy of Carol Crowe Vivier)