Believe it or not, one of the two sisters in the image was dead as the picture was being taken. Can you guess which?
Picture this scene: two siblings have been posed close to one another in front of an early-model camera on an old-fashioned tripod.
One of the sisters is inwardly struggling not to blink or wiggle a finger. But the other has no trouble at all holding still.
Because she's dead.
Amazingly, such a scene wasn't at all rare during the Victorian era. Today, we know of it as post-mortem photography - and we greet the idea with a shiver. Yet 19th century families utilized the process for reasons that may just surprise you.
What was post-mortem photography, and why did people pay for posed images that we think of today as, frankly, gruesome? Read on to discover the truth about this hair-raising custom.
Loving Memorial...or Gruesome Practice?
If you're like most people, you shuddered just a little when you read that one of the two young women above was deceased at the time of the picture. After all, the two sisters in the image are touching. And the eyes of the deceased are open.
The serene look on the girl's face as her dead brother's arm drapes over her shoulder illustrates a different view of death than we have today.
While this is a grim image for even the most rational 21st century mind, post-mortem photography - arranging and photographing the dead - was a common practice in Victorian American and European culture. In may circles, it was considered an art.
But why did they do it at all? In order to answer that question, we need to take a look into the minds - and lives - of the people who engaged in the practice.
Here, an adult is camouflaged behind a spray of flowers in order to prop up the child from behind.
Where the Idea Originated
Before the 19th century, portraits were beyond the financial reach of many families. Portraits involved an artist being commissioned to paint the individual's likeness, which took time and supplies.
And while a grieving family might have found the funds somehow for a painted portrait following the sudden death of a loved one, the days or weeks waiting for the artist to arrive, sketch out and put the initial touches on canvas would have made such an idea impossible to enact.
Because of these logistics, a person might go through life and death without an image of himself having ever been created.
By this carefully loving portrayal, you'd never guess that the woman shot her husband and the infant, then commited suicide. Keller family; Thanatos archives.
Enter the Daguerrotype
Then, in 1839, the daguerreotype was invented. This brilliant invention used lenses, light and a very long sitting-still period to capture an image.
While it was an astounding discovery at the time, it was actually less expensive than painted portraits nearly from its beginnings. For the first time, even middle-class families might have an image or two of a person during her lifetime.
And even poorer families might scrape up the funds for an image once the person was gone. To these, the post-mortem image was a loving memorial; a way to literally see the person, and remember him or her.
In an era of selfies, that sense of awe is hard to fathom; for Victorians, it was a whole new world and considered a precious commodity.
Post-mortem photography was considered an art; "good" photographers were much in demand. One was probably hired for this advertisement for mortuary services.
"As in Life"
Many images from this time period of family members in coffins have surfaced; some are in family collections.
But the idea of posing the deceased came up fairly soon after the daguerreotype was invented. The idea took off and became widely popular among the middle class.
In an astounding feat of artistry, these sisters - who were born together, lived together, and died together - were posed, with eyes painted on the closed lids.
Death was treated differently in the 19th century. Considered a natural part of life, it was less taboo and more at the forefront. (For example, many people died right in their homes, among the things they'd always loved.)
Because it was less expensive than a painted portrait, post-mortem photography was accessible to richer and poorer alike.
It's a partial myth that post-mortem photography was meant to literally make the deceased look alive, at least in the early days of the practice. Rather, the images were meant to capture an overall feel for the deceased to remember him or her by.
Over time, though, post-mortem photographers became more creative with poses, face and body makeup, and natural-looking backgrounds.
While propping up a dead individual, gluing her eyes open, painting irises and pupils on eyelids, and other practices seem gruesome to us, it only makes sense that family members wished to remember certain things about the dead as they were in life.
Arranged in repose, one child grieves; the other sleeps with her mouth positioned in a gentle smile.
At first, post-mortem photography primarly consisted of closeups of the deceased's face and torso. As the practice evolved, increasingly elaborate methods were conceived. These included:
- Propping the dead to a standing or seated position
- Placing a book, musical instrument, or favorite item in the deceased's hands
- Including living relatives in the picture, often cradling, kissing or looking lovingly at the deceased
- Draping an adult with a camouflaging cloth to "invisibly" sit an infant upright
- Laying the deceased on a couch or chair in a very popular "repose" position
- Group photographs of the dead, such as when several members of the family died of contagion
Any motion may have blurred an early photograph, but this obviously beloved child's painted-on eyes show clearly. She holds her dollie in one hand.
Why Don't We Take Post-Mortem Images Anymore?
Actually, we do. Technically, pictures taken at a crime scene or for purposes of an autopsy fall under the umbrella of post-mortem photography.
We've also evolved into a time period where tragedies such as stillbirth are openly discussed and dealt with. In such cases, parents may have pictures taken of the infant. These portraits are often beautiful, with the parents cradling the child, who may be dressed in clothing chosen for the occasion.
Tragically, it's likely these conjoined twins were either stillborn or died soon after their birth.
As we move toward a future where death is confronted rather than hidden, we ironically move back toward our Victorian past and their more practical, yet still loving, view of life - and death.
By the way: it's the standing girl in the image at the top of this page who's dead.