The Open Casket Photograph

Open casket photos remain popular in parts of the U.S.

Open casket photos remain popular in parts of the U.S.

In Victorian times after photography was invented and before it became common for anyone to own a camera, a photograph of a corpse was a common occurrence. Even today, at some funeral homes, it isn’t uncommon for the family members to photograph Uncle Joe or Aunt Margaret as they lay in repose upon white silk. But, the practice is far less common now then it was in the early twentieth century, simply because it seems everyone today owns a camera.

You often can find open-casket photographs at auctions or even on eBay. These photographs were not Photoshop products, as that software did not exist. Old tintypes of dead babies sitting on their mother’s lap were favorites, especially if that mother never had a photograph taken of the baby while he or she was alive.

This was the reason behind the open-casket corpse photograph – photographs of family members often were rare treats in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and if family members traveled a distance to view the deceased and to see family members for the first time in a long time, the casket photo might prove to be the only photo that some family members had of a person. There have been stories about families that took the deceased from the casket so the corpse could sit with family members in a group photograph.

The ‘strangeness’ of a casket photo has increased with the proliferation of cameras and, especially, with digital cameras. However, digital cameras often provide the viewer at a wake with an opportunity to capture a photograph of the deceased with very little notice from other mourners. In other cases, such as a recent funeral near Appomattox, Virginia, little was thought about a cousin who snapped photos of the deceased and mourners so distant relatives could share in the death rituals.

With that said, in many cases, photographing the deceased in the casket often is frowned upon today, and this practice often is seen as macabre. If you never have seen an open-casket photo, you can find one at Dr. Fong’s House of Mystery Web site (a situation that may provide a clue as to how some people now feel about this historic practice).

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