Photo Detective: Funeral Portraits

Family photograph collections contain a wonderful variety of pictures documenting all aspects of life and, in many cases, death. In the Elliott family for instance, this funeral photograph memorializes the death of an unidentified young girl.

While it can be a startling experience to find postmortem or funeral images in family collections, it is not unusual. In fact, these types of images were part of most family photograph albums and displayed alongside images of living family members, according to Jay Ruby, author of Secure the Shadows: Death and Photography in America (MIT Press, $22). Throughout the 19th century, professional photographers advertised their skill and willingness to photograph deceased individuals. Even today, a survey of contemporary photographers revealed that at least 90 percent took postmortem photographs.

Memorial images gradually evolved from brutal representations of death to the inclusion of props to make the deceased appear to be sleeping. Around the turn of the century, funeral images depicted the casket elaborately draped with flowers and other props. It is likely that this photograph is from the early part of the 20th century. While some wakes and funerals were held at funeral homes, many families instead chose to use the deceased home as a setting. In this case, the presence of family photographs suggests the latter option. It is a fairly standard view of the casket with the flowers elaborately draped around it. There is a banner in the flowers that might offer clues to the girl's identity if it were legible.

What is unusual about this image is the fact that the photographer superimposed a small photograph of the girl on the casket. This was added in the photographer's darkroom and was an attempt to bring the girl's spirit back to life. These "spirit photographs" gave the illusion that the person was still living. Instead of the common photograph of the body in the casket, the family chose to depict her as living against the backdrop of her funeral arrangements. Since in this superimposed photo she is shown leaning against pillows in a nightgown—obviously ill—it was probably taken shortly before her death. Postmortem photographs enabled family members to mourn the deceased individual and to remember them after death. Taking these pictures was a universal practice. If your family collection does not have at least one, relatives unnerved by the content of the photograph may have discarded them.

In the Elliott family, the photograph survived but the identification did not. They only know that the girl lived in either Chester or Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, this subject is likely to remain unidentified due to a lack of information.

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at

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