Memento Mori: beauty in death

I know this is going to come off horrendously morbid and terribly bizarre, but isn’t there something just so beautiful in the moments captured after death?  Granted, it’s morose and strange, but displays of such raw emotion; an unwillingness to let go; are so surreally captivating.  And in the Victorian times, they had quite the odd fascination with capturing the dead forever in their finest clothing and stiffest poses.  Memento mori, translated in Latin to ‘remember your mortality’, can describe a variety of macabre art movements, but to me it will always symbolize the post-mortem photography so prevalent in the mid-1800s.

The invention of the daguerreotype allowed even common people to create keepsakes of their loved ones – prior to its invention, capturing family members’ likenesses involved the costly and time-consuming process of commissioning a painted portrait!  This meant that, unfortunately, when common folks died, their survivors were often left with only fading memories to hold on to.

So it was in this very specific time period, where non-wealthy folk had not previously had the opportunity to photograph the family due to, well, photography just being invented and all, that their only option to retain a lasting, tangible keepsake of their loved one, was to take their photograph after death.

Corpses were often propped in lifelike poses, wide eyes were painted on closed eyelids, and even family members sometimes posed with the deceased, particularly if they were children.

Long considered sensational and vulgar, memento mori is just now receiving the fascination and historical recognition it deserves.

If you haven’t already become a fan of the bizarre, take a look below and tell me you don’t find a strange beauty in it all.

memento mori post-mortem photography


*most images courtesy of

Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.

– George Eliot



  1. They are all beautiful and sad. The last one of the couple with their 2 young children breaks my heart to pieces though. Makes we want to piece together what happened that they lost both of their otherwise healthy looking kids at the same time. I bet most of these were the only (or close to it anyway) photos they had of their loved ones.

    • The top one looks like a young Audrey Hepburn.

    • That’s exactly what I’m thinking – it was such a rare moment in history, the moment between the invention of photography and when it actually becomes common practice. So, I think you are absolutely right, Mrs. Loveliest Kelly, that these probably were the family’s only opportunity to have a keepsake of their loved ones. So sad. And isn’t that last one just the most heartbreaking one…there is a blog somewhere (I’ll look for it tomorrow!) that centers on investigating the history of vintage photographs. Not that it would help us with this terrible one, but it’s certainly nice to know that people are looking into all these beautiful and sad mementos!

      • The young bride one is really bizarre. I would have Never thought she was dead if I just saw that photo without the others. Can you tell though if they painted her eyes as open as you mentioned in your lovely blog post (which I had Never heard of!) or are they open?

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