Post-Mortem Portraits

Leading off this week’s This Week at MHS e-newsletter is this rather startling image–to modern eyes, anyway. Post-mortem photography emerged soon after the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 and evolved over the course of the 19th century. Photography, more affordable than commissioning a painted portrait, enabled families to memorialize loved ones and became commonplace.

The fact that it would be considered almost taboo today (at least in Western culture) says a lot about changing attitudes regarding death and dying over the past two centuries. In the mid-19th century and prior, death itself was more commonplace and closer to home. Over time, medical advances and the transition to the hospital as where one went to die created a distance between the living and the dying that hadn’t been as pronounced as before.

The subject of this ca. 1843 portrait is Mrs. William H. Herbert, daughter of George Barker, a ship captain in Bangor. Read more about this item and, if you choose to, view another post-mortem photograph of a child on Maine Memory.


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