Woman in coffin, post mortem

victorian post mortem photography skull illusion woman lace collar coffin
Image courtesy of the collection of Charles Levinson

Edited: please see the comment below the article from Charles Levinson, owner of this particular image. Thanks so much to Charles for getting in touch!

This is a bit of a strange one, to my eyes at least. It had no background information when I found it here - it certainly appears to be Victorian, but there isn’t much except the woman’s clothing and hairstyle to go on.

What’s making me curious as to its background is that the very close angle is unusual compared to all the other Victorian post mortem photography I’ve seen – I’m wondering whether it’s actually been cropped from a larger image.

I’m fairly sure that the markings in the bottom left are foliage from flowers placed around the coffin. The lady’s waxy pallor together with the degeneration of the print itself certainly gives a very eerie result.

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5 Responses to Woman in coffin, post mortem

  1. Frances Rose says:

    no question there, she has seen better days bless her.

  2. Violet says:

    I think the big difference with this pic is that it’s very close up and we can see the details. With a lot of post mortem photography they’re taken from a distance – that, together with the lack of picture quality in early photography, means that a good deal of the images give a more sanitised impression of what was probably a fairly grim reality.

  3. darlarosa says:

    What’s interesting is that at close out you can really see the details of how they treated bodies back then. You can tell her lips have been stitched and that her eyes are unnaturally sunken in.

    The blurr around the face gives me the impression a similar technique may have been used as the one seen in a number of early “glamour” shots, perhaps unintentionally so, but I’m not sure if that’s possible because I know very little about photograph development. It just has that focus on the face with everything around her still being there but out of focus to bring attention to her face, so I figure it was intentional.

  4. charles levenson says:

    I own this particular image..It was acquired with a joblot of old cabinet cards some years ago..some few of the images in the lot had not been attached to cardboard ,and had deteriorated markedly.This was one of them.The image,as you see it fairly reflects the image as it is..Since the image is both old and on very thin frail paper the edges,which are frayed and cracked were edited out after the image was scanned but aside from this the image was not cropped from a larger version..while the image may include flowers it is hard to say as the image itself is blurred.On the back in pencil,someone at one time or another wrote the numbers 1804,which I have taken to represent the image number used by the photographer(whomever that was).It certainly is not a date.No other iformation is available .Given the other images in the lot not attached to cardboard backing I have come to the conclusion that probably this image was not the choice of the woman’s family .Other images in the lot not attached to cardboard backing show then living persons and may be contrasted with images of the same individuals which are attached to cardboard backing.The latter are,for the most part,better images.

    • Violet says:

      Oh wow, thank you so much for sharing that information! It’s fascinating to hear a bit of backstory behind pictures, however vague the details are. I really, really appreciate you taking the time and effort to respond – I’ll make sure readers see your comment. And obviously I’ll put a credit on the photo, now that I know where it’s come from :)

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