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Postmortem photography is the filmic capture of a deceased loved one’s image and was a normal part of American and European culture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It has nothing to do with images of violence, crime, or war. Death, and personally dealing with mortality, was prevalent throughout the entire world as epidemics would come quickly and kill quickly. Advances in medicine removed unexpected death from everyday life and professionals took over. Commissioned by grieving families, postmortem photographs not only helped in the grieving process, but often represented the only visual remembrance of the deceased and were among a family's most precious possessions. Mourning periods were based on family relationships and could last from months to years. Small photographs of the deceased were often carried in lockets or kept close to the body for greater intimacy. As many of the diseases that killed our ancestors were conquered and photography advanced during the century, society grew more and more distant from death, and practices, styles, and traditions of mourning and memorialization changed.


The earliest postmortem photographs were often close-ups of the face or full body, at times depicted to appear lifelike or napping. Children were often positioned in a crib, posed with a favorite toy, or with a family member, most often the mother. Later photographs depict the subject in a coffin. Flowers, like forget-me-nots and calla lilies, were common in postmortem photography of all types. Later photographic memorials involve a shrine usually including a living portrait and flowers dedicated to the deceased.


The Burns Archive played a large role in the rediscovery of the normalcy of postmortem photography. The first of many exhibitions on the topic began in 1978. In 1990, the landmark publication Sleeping Beauty, Memorial in Photography in America, ushered in a new era of appreciation of the importance of these images. Each year since then, exhibitions based on The Archive’s memorial images have been created. Perhaps the most grandiose and prestigious was Le Dernier Portrait at Paris’ Musée d’Orsay in 2002. To accompany the exhibit, Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement and the Family, American & European Traditions was produced. Sleeping Beauty III: Memorial Photography: The Children was written in 2011. The Sleeping Beauty Series is available in our store. In 1997, The Archive produced the documentary, Death In America: A Chronological History of Illness and Death. Numerous other documentarians and feature filmmakers have utilized these poignant photographs, most notably in The Others. The Burns Archive serves as the premier source of images related to death, mourning and medical practices.

Watch a lecture Dr. Burns gave about memorial photography at the Museum of the City of New York in 2013.

"The Practice and Evolution of Postmortem-Memorial Photography" - a lecture for the NYU Grossman School of Medicine by Dr. Burns in February, 2024

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