Mourning Photography, The Stanley Burns Archive, and The Mütter Museum

 Mourning Photography, The Stanley Burns Archive, and The Mütter Museum

Mourning Photography

Post-mortem photography is photographs of the recently decreased and is sometimes referred to as memento mori.  During the Victorian period it was quite common and an accepted way of memorializing the dead from infants to the elderly.

Around 1839 the daguerreotype made photography cheaper and easier for the middle class who could not afford to have paintings done of their loves ones. This photography invention allowed people to have an image of their family member, many of who most likely never had a photo taken of themselves.

It was during the Victorian era that post mortem photography really became commonplace. Mortality rates were quite high particularly among infants and young children. Many children died suddenly and parents would have to get a photographer to the body quickly to photograph the body. Parents took photos of their deceased children as a keepsake to remember them by; often these children were posed as if they were sitting with their eyes open or in a restful sleep. Many times children were in a crib or a bed, surrounded by flowers, and these photos were never taken with the deceased in a coffin. Children were often dressed in white or ordinary clothing and many photographers added a rosy color to their cheeks. Many times in those photos the mother is holding her deceased child while
she is covered in a black shroud. This was done to put emphasis on the deceased.

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These photos were supposed to portray the deceased as if they were still alive so many times they were also posed with everyday things such as toys and usually other family members posed with the dead. As the eyes are the first things to deteriorate after death, many photographers learned to paint false eyes on closed lids if they could not keep the eyes open. It all sounds very macabre but these photos were taken with love and admiration for the deceased. The Victorians did not view death as a macabre experience; instead they found beautification in death and sought to have their loved one memorialized in peaceful images.


The origins of memento mori photographs can be traced back nearly to the beginning of photography itself. During the nineteenth century, post-mortem portraits were used to acknowledge and mourn the death of a loved one, especially a baby or child. All social classes engaged in the practice, which became more widespread after the introduction of the daguerrotype in 1839. The subjects of the photos were generally arranged to appear as if peacefully asleep, all their earthly suffering ended. Displayed prominently in the household alongside other family photographs, the portraits helped heal grieving hearts by preserving some trace of the deceased.

The ritual of photographing the deceased is not a practice that continues in mainstream culture today as many consider it morbid and disrespectful to the corpse. Not so for those who are member of the group, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. They came to my attention while looking at a regularly frequented site, Morbid Anatomy. This non-profit group in Colorado specializes in infant bereavement photography and their photographs of children are special and comforting to the parents by no means morbid.

The Burns Archive

Although there are those that find photographing the deceased terribly morbid there are many collectors of Victorian mourning photography throughout the world. One of the largest collections belongs to Stanley B. Burns, M.D. He is an ophthalmologist who claims to have been a visual person his whole life which led him into the field of seeing and vision. In the 1970s he began collecting post mortem and medical photography to document medical and social conditions. He owns about half a million photographs from the that daguerreotype originated in 1839 through 1939.

As stated above Burns began collecting as he wanted a record of the social conditions at those times. He also has another reason that has to do with documenting how practicing medicine has changed from those times to today. Burns does not have a great fondness for the healthcare system today where doctors are called healthcare providers and patients are called clients or customers. He wanted his collection of medical photography to document want he refers to as, “medical individualism, when special care was paid to the individual as a medical patient. His collections have been published in the books he has written.

Burns has written books enabling readers to view his vast collection. One of these books, entitled, Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America, takes the reader into the world of mourning photography. Many of these photographs are the only images the families will have of the deceased. The images from his collection show a common practice in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Post mortem photography according to Burns, “make up the largest group of nineteenth century American genre photographs” and they are very much unseen. In this book you will find sepia and black and white photos. Burns collaborated with photographer Joel-Peter Witkin on this book. There are two other accompanying books,   Sleeping beauty II : Grief, Bereavement and the Family in Memorial Photography, American & European Traditions, and Sleeping Beauty III: Memorial Photography: The Children which focuses specifically on peaceful images of children. The book also has a section on contemporary memorial photography and images from Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.

If you are interested in Burns’ medical photography archive, you can view them in A Morning’s Work, Medical Photographs from the Burns Archive & Collection, 1843-1939.

Clicking on the book covers below will bring you to our catalog.

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Not from the Stanley B. Burns archive but covers medical photography


The Mütter Museum

The Mütter Museum in Philadelphia is a museum that specializes in the history of medicine and has a large collection of medical photography. Their goal at the museum is to help the public understand the mysteries and beauty of the human body and to understand the history and treatment of diseases.

Mid-nineteenth century saw a beginning of medical photography where physicians were able to share information with their students about their patients. As photography became simpler with the introduction of the Kodak camera in 1888, physicians were able to communicate to their patients as well about their medical conditions.

The museum is part of the The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Along with their collection of medical photography the museum’s collection contains, anatomical and pathological specimens, wax models, and antique medical equipment. Along with the Burns Archive The Mütter Museum has a large medical photographic collection dating from the 1850s to the 1940s.

Click on the book cover to see where it is located.

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Everything is display in a dark 19th century cabinet museum setting. The Mütter is not for everyone. Many find the photographs and collection disturbing while others find a beauty and aesthetic value in the collection. If you go to the Mütter be prepared to see photos and specimens of human oddities and deformities. Remember while you are at the museum or viewing one of their books, the photographs were never meant to put these patients on display as a side show would. Instead these photographs were taken as a way for physicians to understand how to help their patients. The camera makes us see these afflicted people as human beings ravaged by disease and is empathetic to the afflicted. Today these historic photographs provide the viewer a look at how medicine was practiced.

August 2012.NN