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The Death Portrait

The death portrait, or postmortem photography, or the mourning portrait were typically photos or paintings of the deceased painted as a reminder to the living. When I first learned of the mourning portrait I was rummaging through a box of my Great Grandparent’s old belongings. The first thing I found was a lock of blonde hair in a small manila envelope, on it was the name of a little girl, my great aunt, age 5. My first reaction was that of wonder. Here is a lock of hair from my Great Aunt! That feeling instantly switched to confusion when I realized I had never even heard of this little girl. I continued to flip through the piles of papers and photos. The next thing I found was an old newspaper clipping. The clipping was on the mourning of my Great Grandparents who had lost their 5 year old daughter to Diphtheria.

Instantly that feeling of amazement that I had when I found the clipping of hair turned to dread. I went deeper into the pile of papers and that is where I found a photo of my Great Aunt. She was a beautiful little girl. The picture was posed with her asleep. At the time I did not know she was dead. I closed up the box of photos and papers and have not looked since.

The concept of a death portrait is not as disturbing as it sounds. In order to get a better idea of what the portrait represents one must get a better idea of the times. A death portrait, was originally a painting commissioned by a family to capture the likeness of a deceased loved one. The portrait’s were typically of children. The painting would contain certain visible elements such as certain types of flowers; to indicate to the viewer that the person in the portrait was deceased. This practice however was quite costly, and only those well to do could afford the luxury. It was not until Victorian times when the daguerreotype became an affordable and common alternative.


The daguerreotype, simply a photograph, proved to be a way to immortalize the deceased love one. It provided those who had lost someone, a reminder of the life and a token of mourning. Typically these mourning portraits would have a living brother or sister posed above their dead sibling; or a family gathered around a casket; but most often it was a solitary photo of the loved one posed to look as if they were sleeping.


However as World War one started the concept and use of the death portrait lost its appeal. Today we could not even imagine someone posing with their deceased relative. As technology progressed photography has become a very common element. It is something that we can all take advantage of. There is no longer any need for a death portrait. We need merely look at our collections of photos and good times we had to recall our lost loved ones.

* “Collection of Postmortem Photography”:http://ame2.asu.edu/projects/haunted/ISA%20index/book%20of%20the%20dead/book%20of%20the%20dead%20photos.htm

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