Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Master of Arts




Images of the dead have been made throughout human history in the forms of drawings, carvings, death masks, busts, and paintings. When photography became a reliable and widely available practice, spreading to the United States from France and England in the early 1840s, Americans applied that technology to capturing the likenesses of the deceased. Death was a much more familiar, constant, and intimate experience for nineteenth-century Americans than it is now. High infant mortality, unchecked epidemics, limited medical intervention, and generally short life expectancy made the experience of loss through death common to most individuals. Photography, with its nearly magical quality, and mysterious nature, captivated people and became part of nearly all aspects of their lives. It was a reasonable progression for people to extend photography to include taking pictures of the dead. Many times these pictures were the first or only pictures taken of a person, particularly in the case of children, or in rural areas where access to the technology might be limits. Many factors contributed to the climate of acceptance of photography and its use as a tool of preserving postmortem images. The romantic and emotional nature of the time, the influence of Victorian England, the rising technological/industrial tide, the growing funerary business, the Civil War, and the death of Abraham Lincoln. Grieving families brought their own motives to the hiring of a photographer for this purpose, and likewise photographers had their own motives for offering their services. Postmortem photography reflects the union of technology and humanity in a most profound way--the most natural and yet the most extreme of responses.



Digital Repository @ Iowa State University,

Copyright Owner

Cynthia Denise Potter



File Format


File Size

80 pages