Accept Your Fate: Post-mortem Ebay Finds

Ebay has been a great source of vintage photos and daguerreotypes for years. A haven for those interested in ghostly figures gazing out of time-worm scenes from over a hundred years ago, it’s still got it! This listing features an interesting group portrait – an entire family gathered merrily around a dead girl curled up with her favorite toys. From the description:

This is one of the strangest photos I’ve ever seen. And I can’t believe it’s a post-mortem, what with the smiles on some of the family’s faces. I think it must be a joke of some kind. I really think they’re kind of mocking the post-mortem ritual of showing a deceased child with their beloved toys…but I could be wrong.

I’m not an expert, but I have done my share of googlative research, back when I was still in the stuffing-my-place-to-the-brim-with-vintage-ephemera phase. While this photo is a bit unusual in terms of how many people are gathered around the body, the rest adds up. Children were usually pictured with their toys and family members in post-mortem shots. Really, this photo weirds me out far less than, say, this one:

Imagine being 7 and asked to pose with your dead brother. Guhh.

While I find the Victorians’ acceptance of death as part of life healthy [even if forced by the high death rates of the time], the concept of propping up a corpse to look life-like still gives me the stomach-churnies. However, this doesn’t stop me from continuing to adore post-mortem photos, in all their absurdity! A few links on the topic for you perusal:

19 Responses to “Accept Your Fate: Post-mortem Ebay Finds”

  1. Laura Gardner Says:

    The photos are interesting, if not a little disturbing.I find the first one creepier, maybe because it looks like they are about to have afternoon tea over a corpse?

  2. Erin Says:

    As I understand it, the main reason these post-mortem portraits became so popular in the first place was the cost of photography at the time. Most people could not afford to have their pictures taken during life, so the post-mortem was the last chance to preserve the image of your loved one. So it’s really not as morbid as it seems at first glance. No less fascinating, though.

  3. Sarah M. Hilker Says:

    I totally want to go to my funeral after party! Just put me in a glass coffin and use me as a coffee table. It’ll be super cool, promise.

  4. tymcode Says:

    I cannot imagine how this became A Good Idea. I took one of these (albeit a bit more hasty and casual than these elaborately posed ones) of my dad before they took him away. I haven’t been able to look at it, and it’s been like 6½ years.

  5. choklit Says:

    While digging through the archives of beloved photographer Eugenio Recuenco over the weekend, I discovered a series of his that was very reminiscent of these post-mortem portraits… how serendipitous that you posted about them today!

    Click here to see more from the series…

  6. Zoetica Says:

    Choklit, that series took my breath away, thank you!

  7. Tequila Says:

    @tymcode…I’d image it had a lot to do with the novelty of the photograph and the idea of remembrance. A way to pass something on to future generations that these people lived…death masks were quite popular last century too. Creepy to us now but no doubt we’re all doing things that will seem very uncomfortable to future generations.

    As is I think most of us know people with MySpace profiles kept alive by friends and families after they’ve passed on. A bit like the modern variation on this practice.

    @Lady Z…in parts of Mexico you’ll find variations of those Victorian funeral rituals. When my grandmother died she wanted to be buried in her small town in Mexico. A lot of the ceremony included the body on display in the home, people praying all night, the long march to the burial site, mass at a certain time. Very formal even for such an out of the way place. Way more elaborate than the ones I’ve been to in the states by and large.

  8. Poppy Says:

    I went to the funeral of a still-born baby once, and there were big photos everywhere of the family (mother, father, five year old boy) with the dead baby, at home, in the park, places they would have taken the child if he had been alive.

    The funeral was the most heart-breaking thing I have ever experienced. I don’t find these photos morbid or macabre, as I can understand the need to remember a child in life, because a child in death is devastating.

  9. Sterlingspider Says:

    It’s particularly fascinating to read letters written by Victorian women, both during their pregnancies and during their children’s earliest years. We have the wonderful luxury of viewing childhood and childbirth death as rare and shocking occurrences whereas these people lived with it nearly as an expectation.
    Death is a constant underlying presence in so many of these correspondences and so often they quietly but openly acknowledge that these letters may be the last words their friends and families will ever even hear from them, that any visit to them or their children may be the last one.
    It’s a heartbreaking but utterly necessary filter to understanding the genteel morbidity of Victorian culture.

  10. girl x Says:

    i remember learning about this in AP english in highschool… momento mori… i’ve heard that it was very chic to have picnics in graveyards up until the 1930’s or so.

  11. Mer Says:

    Fascinating subject matter, Z! You know what a sucker I am for ghostly vintage num nums. :)

    Taking a closer look, I’m not convinced that the girl isn’t just playing possum in that first photo, which isn’t only unusual in terms of the amount of people; it’s the smiles, the relaxed posture of the woman on the far right, the other woman grinning with her hands in her pockets, the kitten, the fresh fruit lying two feet away on a white cloth. It’s a really candid, casual shot, which is virtually unheard of in nineteenth century funereal portraiture (unless you’re talking Wild West type stuff). While I realize the Victorians had a more intimate, earthy relationship with death, I have trouble believing that an entire parlor full of family members would be ghoulish enough to grin over a little girl’s corpse like that. Unless she was just a horrendous brat!

    But another thing, look at how relaxed the girl’s position is on the pillow. She’s curled up on her side with her legs splayed casually. Rigor mortis usually starts starts setting in about 3 hours after someone is dead… full rigor mortis occurs within 12 hours, and then doesn’t go away for several days, by which time an untreated body is visibly bloated and discolored. By then, the body would have been laid out flat in a coffin, or already in the ground. So… if she’s not just playing dead, the body’s fresh and her entire family consists of sociopaths. OR it’s several days dead, and her family just looooves the smell of a gassy, decomposing, yet deceptively fresh-looking body. YUMMERS. LETS EAT!

    On the other hand, the look on that 7 year old girl’s face in the second photo is heartbreaking. Who knows… that might very well have been the only picture she ever had taken with her brother.

    One of the most beautiful, sad daguerrotypes I’ve ever seen (I’m pretty sure it’s a funeral portrait, but not entirely):

  12. MissSpite Says:

    Those Eugenio Recuenco pieces where stunning.

  13. Jerem Morrow Says:

    I was literally JUST having a conversation about this yesterday with a friend who’d never heard of the practice! In fact, one of the first pics I found, was the first here, at top.

    Erin summed up what I was gonna say.

    p.s. Rue Morgue magazine had a swell write-up on the subject in issue #71.

    Dr. Stanley Burns, an expert on the esoteric art of taking portraits of the deceased, exposes the birth, life and afterlife of post-mortem photography.
    by Last Chance Lance

  14. Jessica Says:

    Another wonderful post Zo, thank you!

    I’ve always been fascinated by this type of image. My mother has a plaster death mask of my great, great grandfather Vincent, who died as an infant. Quite eerie and beautiful. There is something so poignant about the fact that a cast of his face has been carefully handed down through the generations. Last year, I made a special case to protect it, so that he can sleep in a glass-topped box, like Snow White…

    Also, I must mention that there is a marvelous article on post-mortem photography coming up in the next issue of SHOTS Magazine! I’ll send you ladies more info on it soon…

    In case you haven’t seen it, Shots is a beautiful magazine of fine art photography, helmed by Jared’s brother, Russell Joslin. I’ve long thought that it would be of interest to Coilhouse readers. There are so many talented artists here, and it’s an amazing opportunity for photographers, both emerging and established, to be published!

    Mer: You have a point, I also wondered about the casual pose…

  15. Mary Says:

    While I am definitely not an expert on the subject, I do believe that neither photo is likely to be a post-mortem (definitely not the second one!). However, I do happen to know that the owner of The Thanatos Archive ( was the winner of the photo of the little girl.

  16. Lisa Says:

    Both are definitely not post mortem photographs.

  17. Jack Says:

    The boy is definitely not a post-mortem… but as odd of a scene as it is, the girl being post-mortem IS a possibility in my opinion.

    Super enlargement here:

  18. Linkage Sunday 030509 « Says:

    […] Article on creepy victorian postmortem photos found on ebay. Interesting view on death in the Victorian Era. Accept your Fate:Postmorten Photos. […]

  19. Pace Mobley Says:

    I just found a postmortem photo printed on a tin or metal film. It is of three people all of wich are dead and sitting in an upright postion. I remember that we had several of those old pics in one of our family albums and after visiting this site I pulled them out of storage and sure enough I found one. So interesting.