Victorians… Not Just Repressed Colonialists

I came across this web site in my morning read yesterday and shared it with a few folks on instant messenger. Essentially, its a photo gallery of Victorian era post-mortem photography. Apparently it was a novel but eventually enduring custom of the era to enshrine the memory of dead loved ones using the wondrous new technology of photography. Given that dead people don’t tend to move during the lengthy exposures, they would seem to make good candidates for the early photographical process. However, the posing and inclusion of living friends and family members was also very common. The overall effect is, well, kind of creepy. I polled a few unsuspecting friends over IM for their thoughts.

No gory images within, just commentary. If you REALLY want to visit the gallery there is a link at the end of the article.


  • Victorians were all about the creepy.
  • This is exactly what happens when you don’t have anything good on TV or the internet.
  • Fortunately, everything smelled like hell back then. So you didn’t notice.


  • I assume it was meant as a remembrance and that they were not being ironic or intentionally icky.
  • Probably not a lot of portraits taken of the person while alive.
  • The one with the living older sibling cradling the dead one is chilling


  • That IS creepy. I don’t know how you could stand it.
  • They were less horrified by corpses, I think. Guess they were used to it.
  • Chalk it up to a high mortality rate and home-prepared corpses.

Mystech (your’s truly):

  • Remarkably considering the primitive state of preservation. Most of these had probably began to putrefy to some degree. And you had to sit there for long, early film exposures.
  • Going to chalk it up to absinthe, opium and laundnum.
  • I thought they’d be busier conqueoring and colonizing the third world.

So here’s the link to the gallery. Nothing gory, mind you, but delicate readers may not want to click through.

What’s your take? Just another post-mortem fad (like Lifegems, Space Burials and Cryonics)?

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10 Responses

  1. Lilisonna says:

    Yeah, creepy. Lots and lots of deceased children, I noticed.

  2. Mystech says:

    Very high infant mortality rate. 25-50% in the worst parts of urbanized England at its low point.

  3. Goblinkatie says:

    I’m amazed as well that the decomposition was so low given my assumption of the technology for the time. In many of the photos where they attempted to make it look like the person was living, you really would not know they had expired without being told.

    I think the two which grabbed me most were the girl 9 days dead that REALLY did not look it, and the first picture of a baby on the top right of page 1. The baby would be a wonderful picture to use as decor if it weren’t for the grizzly reasoning for his peaceful expression.

    One thing did strike me as odd though; there were mirrors in one or two of the pictures. The Victorians would cover mirrors as part of the mourning “ritual” due to a belief that they could become possessed if they saw the departed’s spirit reflecting in one.

    Very interesting find though, thanks!

  4. Mystech says:

    I’m not sure what’s up with the mirrors. Perhaps the custom was not as pervasive as we’ve been led to believe. I noticed there also seemed to be a penchant for propping open the eyes as well.

  5. Joie says:

    There was a Nicole Kidman Movie, “The Others”, where this figured in fairly prominiently. That was the first time I’d ever heard of it. The pictures of the dead weren’t so much for practice as they were for memorial; a way of remembering loved ones before they were buried.

  6. Lemon says:

    I’d seen those before, but they do give me the creeps. I think that people in that age were less likely to be creeped out because they WERE so acquainted with death. Nowadays people wouldn’t consider a home laying out of the body, or family doing the preparation. And the child mortality rate was SO high that people almost didn’t expect all their children to live. We’ve so distanced ourselves from death, but at the same time most Americans still want embalming of their loved ones, and if that isn’t creepy as hell I don’t know what is, but there’s still some compulsion to make the person look alive.

    And most people went their whole lives without being photographed back then, too, so it isn’t surprising that the family would take the last opportunity.

  7. Mystech says:

    I think you’re on track with that. Frankly, embalming strikes me as creepy. I’m just not comfortable with the idea of being pumped full of chemicals after death to get a few more days or weeks of preservation. My choice will/would be to be allowed to decompose quickly and usefully.

  8. Lemon says:

    You should read “The American Way of Death.” The chapter on embalming is fascinating, and I’m stunned that anyone could ever read that book and still want to be embalmed or shell out that kind of cash to the funeral industry.

  9. Lemon says:

    Oh, and coincidentally in today’s paper:

    The funeral industry is fascinating.

  10. Mystech says:

    Yeah, I’m still recommending “Stiffs” to people but I’ll add that one to my list. 🙂

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