Camera Mortis

How photographs of the dead helped me mourn

Lili Hamlyn

Sarah A. Lawrence is twice memorialized: first by her parents shortly after her death, and again in Dr. Stanley B. Burns's collection of mourning photographs. Courtesy Stanley B. Burns, MD and The Burns Archive

Sarah a. Lawrence has a toy drum hanging around her neck. A drumstick is nestled in each tiny hand. She wears a paisley dress and a beaded necklace; the strap on her drum is made of the same ribbon that decorates the puffed sleeves of her dress. The girl’s hair is styled into a single, coiffed curl atop her head. The image has been expertly tinted; her cheeks and lips are rosy, her dress is red and pink, the stripes on her drum crimson. But her open eyes don’t meet our gaze; her stare is unfocused and blank.

Sarah A. Lawrence is dead. Doubly dead. That is, not only is she dead the way anyone encountered in a very old photograph is; she was already dead by the time the image—a sixth-plate daguerreotype—was taken around 1847. This postmortem portrait is probably the only photograph ever taken of her. She is now twice memorialized: first by her parents shortly after her death and again in Stanley B. Burns’s Sleeping Beauty II, a selection of postmortem and mourning photographs from the Burns Archive, an extensive, private collection of early medical, postmortem, mourning, and other historic photographs, located in New York. Burns, an ophthalmologist and professor of medical humanities at NYU, founded the archive in 1977; he has published over fifty photo-historical texts, curated over a hundred exhibitions, and regularly consults as a medical, historical, and technical adviser on television and film projects, including Cinemax’s The Knick and PBS’s Mercy Street.

My infatuation with postmortem photographs began in the months following my mother’s death, when I was twenty-three years old. I found Stanley B. Burns’s work by chance and was trans- fixed; I spent days in the British Library poring over the pages of his books. At the time, I didn’t or couldn’t understand that there was a relationship between my grief and the fact that I was spending hours looking at images of the dead. I was adjusting not only to loss but also to the fact that my days were no longer ordered by the duties of care. For months I had organized my life around hospital appointments, pain management, palliative care, and anticipatory grief. And then one day I no longer had to. I was exhausted, sad— and free. I didn’t know what to do with myself.

I had always imagined that my mother’s death would cause some cathartic disintegration, or at least leave me profoundly altered, steeped in a grief so extreme I would be unable to function. In a way, I was looking forward to the deliverance of falling apart. But that deliverance never came. Instead, I planned a funeral and prepared elaborate meals I had little desire to eat. I bought scratch cards, watched cooking competitions on TV, and purchased a set of Star Wars novelty drinking straws as a gift for a visiting friend. Today I consider these my responses to grief, but at the time context was impossible. The sudden shift from caregiver to bereaved produced a kind of numb delirium: I had no idea how I really felt. Looking at postmortem photographs was my way, I now see, of keeping death close. Under the vague guise of research—what I thought I was researching I don’t know—I could dwell on, luxuriate in, death. I could let it stay with me as those around me moved on.

My infatuation with postmortem photographs began in the months following my mother’s death.

Reading Sleeping Beauty II among the semi-suppressed coughs and frantic pencil scratches of fellow researchers in the British Library’s capacious humanities reading room, I thought of Roland Barthes, for whom a photograph of the dead “certifies, so to speak, that the corpse is alive, as corpse: it is the living image of a dead thing.” Burns’s books are a procession of such corpses. The long-dead transform into the recently departed, preserved at a moment when their death was new. Though I try to linger over each image, give space to each death, the figures begin to overlap and blur; tendrils of connection spread across the pages. The corpses are dancing around a maypole, entangling themselves.

Parents drape emaciated children across their laps, cradle newborn twins, kneel beside their fallen soldier son, or stand over beds and coffins, heads bowed. A father sits with a daughter on each knee—one living, one dead. Another, silhouetted, watches over a bed, bathed in light, upon which lies the body of his child. Next come the husbands: a man hugs his wife, tenderly supporting the weight of her corpse. A woman in profile lies on a bed surrounded by a halo of freshly picked blossoms. Behind her, her husband lurks in shadow. One eye open, he gazes at his dead wife.

Startlingly, too, there are photos of bodies that are already decomposing. Streaks of dark fluid run from an old woman’s nose across her cheek. An infant stares up from her tiny coffin with a sprig of wildflower in her dehydrated, bony hand. A girl with ringlets “several days” dead has a withered face, her receding upper lip revealing her teeth.

Though the bodies pictured are dead, some photographs erupt in color. The patches of a quilt tucked under a man’s chin are tinted pink and turquoise. Bright floral motifs are painted onto the dresses of a living mother and her dead child. Baby cheeks are stained the same pink as living siblings and parents.

The majority of postmortem photographs date from the second half of the nineteenth century, when dying and funerary practice mutated from an inevitable and accepted part of life dealt with in the home by families and their communities to something outsourced to highly specialized death professionals. Even the language surrounding death had started to become increasingly formalized. The graveyard became the cemetery, the undertaker the funeral director. Funeral establishments were rechristened “funeral parlors,” while the domestic “parlor,” a room that had been mainly reserved for funerary customs, was rebranded the “living room.” This change, conceived of and dictated by those we might now call tastemakers, eliminated the linguistic markers of death from the home.

And yet the dead entered the visual realm of the living. Embalming, which began on Civil War battlegrounds, was popularized in part by the sale of stereoview cards: first of medical embalmers on the battlefields, then of Lincoln’s pickled body lying in state. It allowed friends and family of the deceased to gaze lovingly on—and commission photographs of—the chemically and cosmetically enhanced body of their loved one, a perfect facsimile of how the person was in life. Many of these changes can be traced to the Civil War, during which Americans experienced death on an unprecedented scale; an estimated two percent of the population died, the equivalent of six million people today. The scope of loss changed American attitudes toward death and transformed how Americans mourned; soldiers lost their lives on battlefields thousands of miles from home, where dying had traditionally taken place. As Drew Gilpin Faust details in her book This Republic of Suffering, during the war, photographs of the dead circulated widely, exposing civilians to the brutality of battlefield carnage for the first time, and images of loved ones were often found next to, or in the hands of, corpses. Photographs of the living became proxies for deathbed witness as soldiers, too, made use of photographic technologies.

Photographing the dead was by no means exclusively an American practice, but it was particularly popular in the United States, where professional photography was accessible and inexpensive. Though daguerreotypes were invented in France, the technology was referred to as “the American process” by 1851. Photography, seen to align with democratic American values, was widely adopted by working-class tradesmen, whereas in Europe the practice was reserved for artists and members of the upper class. Jay Ruby notes in “Post-Mortem Portraiture in America” that photographers advertised that they could come to the deceased’s home on an hour’s notice, and traveling photographers were able to reach even remote communities following a death. The cost varied depending on the size of the print and the experience of the photographer, but photographs could be procured for a relatively small sum, often as little as twenty-five cents apiece, the equivalent of around nine dollars today.

In nineteenth-century postmortem photographs, the recently deceased were sometimes posed with the living, as in this image of a husband and wife, from the Burns Archive.

The pictures these photographers made generally fall into one of two compositional categories: “posthumous mourning,” where the corpse, with eyes pried opened, is posed—often seated in a chair—as though still alive; and “mortuary,” where the corpse, with closed eyes, is laid out on the deathbed, or in a coffin or casket.

The vogue for posthumous mourning pictures was relatively short-lived; the practice peaked in the 1850s and 1860s, and according to Ruby “at the turn of the century, post-mortem portraits as such became less frequent.” Perhaps this was a result of the increasing ubiquity of photography itself. Early postmortem photographs were often the only photographic likeness of their subjects. As people were more commonly photographed in life, and they had an alternate way in which to remember their loved ones, there was little need to pose corpses in imitation of the living.

From the 1870s on, the nature of the postmortem photograph changed: private talismans of grief and remembrance were replaced by images of the funerary scene that could be reproduced ad infinitum. New photographic technologies, namely cartes de visite and cabinet cards, allowed for multiple copies of the same image to be produced. These paper prints could be easily circulated among the family and friends of the deceased, and as Audrey Linkman describes in her book Photography and Death, the prints served both as public tokens of remembrance and as a means of demonstrating social and actual capital by flaunting the care and money lavished upon the dead. During this time, most postmortem photographs were mortuary pictures, and beautification became their dominant concern. Corpses were photographed in ornate caskets, surrounded by lush floral displays and elaborate wreaths. Sometimes, only a sliver of a face in profile is visible among the paraphernalia of funerary opulence.

thousands of these photographs can be found online at the Thanatos Archive, a database, founded and curated by Jack Mord, that is dedicated to collecting postmortem and mourning photographs. The archive has existed online since 1999. There I can narrow my search by keyword—child, flowers, mother, suicide, quilt, smallpox, decomposition—or just click through a succession of deaths. Above each image is a box I can tick to save the photograph to my personal collection. The photographs—static, unchanging—are a salve for my ungainly grief. I’m trying to make sense of it all, to find a course through the profusion of cadavers. I trace chains of logic across these images of death, forge connections, make the images commune with one another. I am seeking out peculiar details and striking compositions. I’m looking for patterns that only I can see.

In particular, I am collecting grieving mothers. All the mothers photographed in profile, gazing down at the dead child they hold in their arms. The mothers in shadow, the mothers in mourning dress, mothers who still look like children themselves. Their awkward, stilted poses; their furrowed brows; their closed eyes. Mothers and fathers photographed individually as if to say, our relationship may not survive this. The mother lying in bed, just minutes postpartum, beholding the body of her stillborn infant; the mother cradling two dead sons. The mothers who confront the camera face on. Ambiguous expressions, impassivity masking devotion, resignation, agony, tenderness, exhaustion. These photographs—taken by cameras that require long exposures—capture more than a brief moment. In front of the camera, the mothers are motionless. For the length of the exposure, they enact the lifelessness of their children, their grief observed by maker and lens. I am collecting their stillness.

All routes through the images are illuminated by mothers and lead to more mothers. These women are both the foundation and centerpiece of my collection. I wonder if I’m drawn to the mothers because their grief is more acute than mine, their pain far greater than anything I can comprehend. I have experienced loss, yes—but not in the ways that they have. I am lured by their faces; the expressions they wear as they gaze upon their young. I will never again be a mother’s daughter. No one will ever look at me with that singular expression of maternal love.

Sometimes I wonder if the hours I’ve spent with images of corpses has been an act of mitigation. To look at them is not to distract myself from grieving but to create a space where death can be contained and perhaps controlled. I am trying to grant death a chamber in which to flourish so that I might close the door. Does each unknown body I see work, bit by bit, to neutralize the shock or pain of seeing the original body, my mother’s body?

When I joined the Thanatos Archive, I didn’t know that the voices of its members would be so pronounced. In the comments section, some quibble over diagnoses. Some speculate on causes of death. Others are rattled by the corpses of healthy looking, chubby babies, as if they believed that beauty were effective insurance against death. Many use the photographs of bereaved Victorians, especially the mothers, as a conduit for their own grief. They address their comments directly to the subjects of the images. One woman—whose comment made such an impact on me that I jotted it down in my notebook—fantasizes that her late son is the playmate of a dead little boy; she imagines them in heaven together, playing with a hoop.

The Thanatos commenters make me uneasy. Their prattle interrupts my viewing; the way they crave connection—seem to need so much—disturbs me. I feel embarrassed by them, for them, for their rampant and peculiar desire to create narratives, and for their
projected grief. I want, I think, to be different from these Thanatos members, who fail to grasp that the people in the photographs can’t listen to them and will never love them back. But I’m no different. Like them, I’m there with my grief; my grief is always there.

five years after my mother’s death, I no longer buy scratch cards. I’ve decanted some of my mother’s ashes into an antique milk-glass paprika jar. It sits on a bookshelf next to a tiny bottle filled with dried flowers. Together, I suppose, they’re the physical manifestation of my remembrance, but they’re far from enough. Periodically I return to Burns’s books, take photographs of the pages, and fill my phone with the dead. Sometimes, though it feels somewhat shameful to admit, I feel a pang of envy when I look at these images. I would like a photograph of my mother’s corpse swathed in gossamer and crowned with peonies. I wouldn’t want her to be made to look alive or well; I’d want her mouth to gape and flecks of dried blood to encircle her nostrils. I’d place the photograph in an ornate frame and keep it close. I’d hand out copies to everyone she loved. The image would affirm that she existed in death, just as she did in life.

But acting on my fantasy of circulating an image of my mother’s corpse is impossible. It would be held up as evidence of pathological grief—grief that is excessive, compulsive, disturbing, that does not fit within the confines of acceptable mourning. At the very least, it would seem extremely weird. The only person who might understand is my mother. An artist, she was, to borrow one of her favorite phrases, charmingly nuts. Her flair for the bizarre would, I think, have extended to enjoying posing in death, if such a thing were possible.

indeed, nowadays, the mere act of taking a picture of a loved one’s dead body is considered strange. In a 2009 letter to the British Medical Journal, a doctor describes his disquiet at witnessing a man photographing his deceased relative: he wonders aloud whether this “slightly odd behavior” is an isolated event, unique to this individual, or whether access to private and instant photography through camera phones has enabled the bereaved to photograph their dead as an act of private self-soothing, one that wider society would certainly disapprove of.

In her 2011 essay on death and digital photography, the Australian curator Helen Ennis labels twenty-first-century vernacular postmortem photographs as “vexed.” Ennis notes that these images cannot be easily found. Rather, digital postmortem photographs can be seen only if or when their maker chooses to show them. “You can only take my word for them,” writes Ennis.

What makes these images feel so vexed or vexing? Perhaps because their makers are alive; their subjects are still missed. They are rarely, if ever, shared. They can’t be held like daguerreotypes. Unprinted, each photograph is a single file in a vast digital archive, viewed only through the medium of a device. It is impossible to know how many people photograph their dead or the precise reasons why they do it, but I suspect it has something to do with the desire or need to transform loss into something more manageable. To photograph the dead is to impose boundaries. The dead body becomes mutated, no longer solely a site of grief but an image: composed, structured, more easily understood.

A few months after I began researching postmortem photos, I decide I need to encounter a daguerreotype close up. Postmortem daguerreotypes are hard to come by, so instead I purchase a job lot of sixth- and ninth-plate daguerreotypes on eBay. The subjects of these photographs might not have been dead at the time the image was captured, but they’re dead now, both in the instantly appreciable long-ago death of anyone encountered through an old photograph, and in the way that all photography is death. And besides, what I want is to experience their materiality, touch them, know what these objects feel like in my hands.

In particular, I am collecting grieving mothers.

The photographs arrive in their original cases: hinged wooden boxes wrapped in embossed black leather, with delicate little clasps engraved with roses and stars, measuring 2 × 2.5 inches. They are tiny; the cases sit comfortably in the palm of one hand. These are objects to be viewed up close, to be held. There’s something deeply tactile, almost fetishistic about them. The cases open like a book. On the left side is padded silk velvet—red, purple, ochre—stamped with floral motifs. On the right sits the photographic plate, nestled behind protective glass with a decorative gold metal frame. The daguerreotypes are highly polished, mirror-like. Depending on the angle at which I view them, I see the film as a negative or a positive image; sometimes I see my own reflection.

I have become very attached to this stack of cases filled with unknown people. Each morning I lay them out on the table where I write; throughout the day I run my fingers across the leather, peer at the tinted cheeks of a boy who looks a little like my father. They moor me, my daguerreotypes, as objects themselves. Opening and closing the cases feels a little like peeking inside a coffin, or tucking someone into bed. I know they’ll be there in the morning, waiting for me, the only one who looks.

Sometimes a memorial card or a scrap of paper with a handwritten name is tucked inside a daguerreotype case. On the Thanatos Archive, a group of administrators use these clues to exhume biographical snippets, obituaries, genealogical data; to unearth grave sites, death certificates, autopsy reports. But the subjects of postmortem photographs are anonymous for the most part.

And for the most part, we do not know the names of the photographers who took them. Yet while the photographers may be anonymous, they are not mute. From the pages of nineteenth-century local newspapers (The Topeka Daily Capital, The Boston Weekly Globe, The Cincinnati Post, the Harrisburg Telegraph) the makers of these images recall their wildest photographic brushes with the dead. And in trade journals, safe from the untrained eye of the general reader, the photographers share their methods. Their graphic descriptions of corpse arrangement have stayed with me, made an indelible impression. In my mind, their guidance has transformed into a chorus of process, of labor, as I recall their instructions: Open the eyes with a spoon or coin. Plump the cheeks with cotton. Create expressions using pins. Remember to fix the curls. In Photographic Mosaics, one photographer’s words stand apart. His writing is different, his focus psychic preparation:

Banish from [the] mind many prejudices and much feeling.… Learn to look upon [the] inanimate subject as the painter does his clay figure, [and]…force [the] belief that in being callous to the affecting surroundings of the place, [you] are doing a real service to those who employ [you].

At all times be prepared to make such a picture.

i photographed my mother’s body when she died. But I did it hurriedly and on my phone. I was embarrassed, concerned about what the nurses would think if they came into the room and saw me. It is something I regret. I wish I had taken more care.

I have never shown the photographs to anyone, though they sat on my phone for months. During that time, I snatched my phone away from anyone who touched it. Recently I made myself look at them. They’re mostly what I remember, quick snapshots poorly composed. But there’s one I didn’t recall. My mother’s body is in shadow, as are the hospital bed and monitors. Her head pokes out of the bedsheets; I’m not sure you would see her if you didn’t know to look. It’s the window which draws focus. Through it, dawn light, the chimney stacks of Victorian terraces, steam billowing from a nearby rooftop, orange construction cranes. The scene is almost beautiful.

Lili Hamlyn is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The White Review, The Oxonian Review, and the TLS.
Originally published:
June 1, 2022


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