Mourning Photography – Remembering the Recently Departed

by Carolyn L. Barkley

A picture of a deceased family member, in today’s world, is not an unusual part of our family archives. With the advent of affordable cameras, (and now smart phones, iPads, etc.) for the average individual, our albums (or archival boxes, disk drives, or Cloud storage) include many pictures of deceased family members. These pictures, however, are seldom taken after death. Modern sensibilities would consider such pictures more than a bit ghoulish. Earlier generations, however, particularly those living during the Victorian era (beginning in 1831 and lasting until the end of the nineteenth century) considered them in a completely different light.

For individuals living prior to the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, the only way to preserve the likeness of a family member was a painted portrait, often in miniature, that could be transported more easily. Such paintings, however, were expensive and normally available only to the wealthy class, and were subject to the skills of the artist. For those less fortunate, the image of a deceased loved one existed, most likely, only in memory. The daguerreotype, however, provided an exact likeness and made this photographic image available to a larger segment of the population. The later development (pardon the pun) of other formats, including the carte de visite, further expanded the audience. For many families, a picture of the recently deceased individual might be the only likeness they had, particularly for children.

The practice became, then, for a photographer to visit the bereaved family, often soon after the body had been prepared for burial. Initially, however, these individuals were not photographed in their coffin. They were, instead, usually glimpsed in close-ups of faces, although sometimes the entire body was photographed, often in repose on a bed. A review of such photographs quickly illustrates many are children, emphasizing the high rate of child mortality during the time period. Children, in addition to being shown in their cradles or beds, were photographed while they were held in their mothers’ arms.

More disconcerting to modern sensibilities, however, are the pictures in which the deceased individuals are posed in life-like situations with other, living, family members (a friend of mine said this constituted a new definition of “still life”). An example is seen to the left in a photograph from Wikimedia Commons.

We are familiar with the stiffness (oops, another pun) of many poses in pictures from this time period as individuals had to remain in one position for an extended period while the picture was exposed. However, if you have such an image among your family pictures, you may want to analyze them carefully. Can you see any mechanism holding an individual in a specific pose? Are hands placed in unnatural positions? Often a post was clamped at the waist and neck to hold the individual in place, while wires held the arms. Are the eyes of the individual open or has the photographer “painted” the pupils over the closed eyelids? One of the best examples of this type of composition is a picture of a young girl standing between her mother and father. At first glance it looks like a typical family portrait, but closer investigation reveals the staging behind the picture.

Another practice during this era was the addition of a photograph to a gravestone. I first discovered this practice in a cemetery in my home town (East Longmeadow, Massachusetts). As a teenager, I visited (for some reason, long forgotten) the Billings Hill Cemetery (corner of Prospect and Pease) and discovered a gravestone with a porcelain plaque that, once the cover was slid to the side, revealed a picture of the person buried beneath. This past Thanksgiving, with some extra time on my hands, I decided to re-visit the cemetery and see if the picture was still there. Relying on at least 45-year old memories, I was successful. After walking up and down the several rows, I found the gravestone of Angeline B. Lathrop (wife of F.K. Lathrop), who had died in February 1859 at age 28 (see my picture below). Sadly, the cover is now gone,  and the picture has been destroyed by the elements. I was curious, however, about the fact that Angeline’s is the only gravestone in that cemetery (379 interments) with such a picture affixed to it. I wondered why.

Quick, preliminary research in the 1850 census located Frederick K. Lathrop, aged 26, living in Longmeadow, Hampden County, Massachusetts (East Longmeadow was not founded until 1894), with his mother Caroline, and his brother, Joseph.1 Continuing the search, I located an Angeline Billings, aged 20, living with her father and mother, Warrin and Emily, and siblings Truman, Harriet, and Emilus.Both the Lathrop and Billings family had real estate valued at $2,000. By the 1860 census, Frederick had remarried and had a five-year old son. At that time, he had real estate valued at $2,500 and personal property valued at $1,200.3 While the research didn’t explain why Angeline’s gravestone was the only one with a photograph, it does suggest that her family (both hers and her in-laws) had the financial ability to purchase one.

Pleased with my (re)discovery, I returned home to Virginia and mentioned my experience to a friend who volunteered that a similar stone existed in a cemetery in Crimora (outside Staunton), Virginia. On Monday, we set out to look. We arrived at the Trinity Lutheran Church (2564 Rockfish Road), described on its sign as the oldest Lutheran congregation in Augusta County (dating from 1772). We ambled happily through the cemetery’s oldest section remarking on the many Revolutionary war graves, one 1812 grave, and many lovely German stones.

Then, we found it…the gravestone of Eliza Jane Harris, wife of James Harris, who died in August 1861 at the age of 24. What was particularly exciting to me was the porcelain plaque on the stone, again with the cover missing and the picture disintegrated – and again, the only such plaque in the cemetery. Another quick search, this time in the 1860 census, identified Eliza Jane Harris, aged 22, living in the same household with her husband James H., a dentist, aged 25; their daughter Laura, aged 2, and their son, M.H., aged 5 months. The head of household is Eliza Rosenberger (presumed mother of Eliza) and her (presumed) daughter Susan, and brother, A.G.4 While James has only $300 in personal property, Eliza Rosenberger had  real estate valued at $5,480 and personal property valued at $1,590. Once again, this family has the economic means to purchase the plaque for Eliza Jane’s gravestone. BUT, one again, her stone is the only one in the cemetery with a porcelain picture plaque.

I don’t have the answer as to why only one stone in each of the cemeteries, but I am intrigued by the two instances – one in Massachusetts and one in Virginia – within two years of one another (1859 and 1861) with a similar porcelain picture plaque. Clearly more research is in order.

Meanwhile, several online sources provide collections of Victorian mourning photographs including the Museum of Mourning Photography and Memorial Practice (MoMP), The Thanatos Archive, and the collection of Paul Frecker. In addition, an article, “Faces from the Past – Ceramic Memorial Plaques,” posted on 18 May 2012 on the blog A Grave Interest explores ceramic memorial plaques, dating the process to about 1854.

Our ancestors dealt with death with greater frequency than we do today. It was not unusual to have several children die in large families. Photographs of the dead were ways these families used to keep the memory of their loved ones close.


1 1850 U.S. census, Hampden County, Massachusetts, population schedule, Longmeadow, p. 4B, dwelling 64, family 66, Frederick K. Lathrop, digital image, ( : accessed 12 December 2012); citing NARA microfilm publication M432, roll 318.

2 1850 U.S. census, Hampden County, Massachusetts, population schedule, Longmeadow, p. 9 (stamped), dwelling 142, family 147, Angeline Billings, digital image, ( : accessed 12 December 2102); citing NARA microfilm publication M432, roll 318.

3 1860 U.S. census, Hampden County, Massachusetts, population schedule, Longmeadow (Wilbraham Post Office), p. 62, dwelling 544, family 574, Frederick K. Lathrop, digital image, ( : accessed 12 December 2012); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 503.

4 1860 U.S. census, August County, Virginia, population schedule, North Subdivision, p. 183, dwelling 1241, family 1246, Eliza J. Harris, digital image, ( : accessed 12 December 2012); citing NARA microfilm publication M653, roll 1333.

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.