Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Postmortem Group Photo

Though I’ve seen such images as this over the years, the group postmortem photograph is rather unusual. More typically one sees a simple portrait of the deceased, or at most, the deceased surrounded by family members. Also, this particular image is special since I actually own it. Bought it, framed in a vintage gold-tone metal frame (see photo below), at the Punk Rock Flea Market in Philadelphia, June 7, 2014.

This is my first postmortem photograph. Maybe it’s the start of a new obsession, but I doubt it. The main problem with collecting such work is its relative scarcity, and therefore, it’s prohibitive price. The retail value of this mourning art collectible is probably $250. I paid $20. While I have friends who attend estate sales of funeral homes and have greater access to such ephemera, the occasional flea market find is about all I’m capable of.

I originally posted the images you see here on Facebook, proclaiming, with no great authority, that the photograph was from the late 1800s. I only said this because postmortem photography was wildly popular in the Victorian era (1837-1901), and all the people in the photo are dressed in old-style clothing. An astute reader quickly pointed out that the clothes put the image in the 1910s.

The other hint regarding its age that should have jumped out at me is that large, matted, paper photographs were not available until after 1900. Between 1840 and 1900, metal plate (Daguerrotype) and glass plate (ambrotype) images were for the most part the only type of photographic images created for the consumer (the average person did not own a camera). While paper prints were available after 1851, the “cabinet card” (4 x 5 inch photograph pasted on a slightly larger card) was the most popular photographic medium up to about 1900. The photograph I purchased measures 8x10 inches. Therefore, it must have been made after 1900.

By 1910, cameras were becoming quite common and consumers began taking their own photographs. The only way professional portrait photographers could remain in the postmortem business was to produce “large elaborately designed mats for memorial images to be framed and displayed”  (according to Stanley B. Burns, M.D., in his book, Sleeping Beauty III – Memorial Photography, The Children). So my image was probably made around this time. The photograph is mounted on an 11x14 inch mat on which is embossed “E. Stern, Northampton, PA,” presumably a photographic studio in Northampton, Pennsylvania (which is in southeast PA).

I’m curious as to whether the 13x17 inch metal frame dates back to the same era. I'm also curious as to where I might display this dark treasure. A friend of mine who I ran into at the Punk Rock Flea Market saw me on the street a few days later and asked if I had hung it in my house. I replied that the only place that my wife would probably allow it would be in the basement behind the water heater.  

Replica of mourning ribbon
So back to the vintage photograph at hand. We see the deceased in his coffin (nice touch having the coffin lid propped against the fence at right!), surrounded by family and an honor guard, of sorts. By the look of the crowd, and the building they’re posed before, it appears that the deceased was a member of some fraternal or veterans organization. All the men are wearing mourning ribbons on their lapels, similar to the reproduction of one such item I’ve shown here (the replica ribbon says: "Meade Post 1, GAR, Philadelphia." At top, it says "Honor the Noble Dead"). Possibly they were GAR (Grand Army of the Republic) members or Freemasons. The women and children at center are probably family members of the deceased. The deceased himself is holding an official-looking cap, so perhaps he was a leader of some sort in this organization, or maybe a military veteran.

This extraordinary scene is a rare example of group postmortem photography, a memorialization practice that began to die out (no pun intended) by 1940 in the United States (though it continued to be popular for several more decades in Europe). I am interested in knowing what the building is and what the possible fraternal organization was. So if any reader has some idea, please let me know! I assume that since the photographic studio was in Northampton, Pennsylvania  (in the Lehigh Valley, north of Philadelphia), then the building in the photo was in the same geographic area. The photographer "E. Stern," or his studio in its entirety, was involved in postmortem photography on a regular basis. A quick search on the Internet provides a few examples of postmortem photographs made by the "E. Stern Studio." (Click the links at the end of this blog to view them.)

New Orleans woman attends her funeral social! (ref.)

As an aside, it does seem that contemporary postmortem photography may actually be on the rise in the United States. On June 12, 2014, a woman in New Orleans (photo above) was propped up at a table as the guest of honor at her own going-away party (click link for story). Presumably, guests had their pictures taken with her. On January 31, 2014, a family had their dead boxer son propped up in a mock boxing ring (photo below) and posed with him for photographs (click link for story)

Puerto Rican family poses with dead boxer son (ref.)

Further Reading:
Postmortem photographs made by the "E. Stern studio:"