Post-mortem photography, also known as memorial or mourning portraits, is the practice of photographing the recently deceased. This was considered a normal part of the grieving process in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
These photographs also documented floral arrangements and the coffin. It was the custom to photograph funeral flowers with or without the body of the deceased. The floral arrangements often contained photographs made while the deceased was alive. In addition to flowers, memorial photos also documented other items symbolizing the life of the deceased person. Religious items, crucifixes, statuary, Bibles or holy books represented the person’s faith.
Every photo contains a story. The photo of Anna’s floral arrangements shows us her parlor. Notice the photograph on the wall. It appears to be WWI soldiers at a camp. Her son Joseph was drafted and trained at Camp Funston, in Fort Riley, Kansas. On the left are two statues, one appears to be Mary holding Jesus. The white dove in the floral arrangement on the right is a symbol of a gentle, loving spirit and also of the Holy Spirit.
This photo of the floral arrangements shows Anna in her coffin. Notice the statues have been moved to the head of the coffin and a crucifix added. Anna was only 63 years old. She died from cancer of the stomach. Her father, Peter Schifferns, also died from stomach cancer at the age of 80 years.
Thomas was also “laid out” in the parlor. The wallpaper and the rug are the same. The photo on the wall has been replaced with a large Sacred Heart drawing. A crucifix was placed on the cabinet between two candles. Thomas has fewer floral tributes.
In a 1982 interview Bert Trausch recalled the photos being taken. “What I remember is that Williams took pictures of them in their coffin. Years ago when they took a picture they set off about a pound of powder to make a flash. I remember the double doors even puffed out on that room from the flash. Williams, my uncle, [husband of Mary Trausch] took those pictures; he was a photographer in Hastings.”
The flash Bert remembered was made with flash powder, a fine magnesium powder mixed with potassium chlorate. It was eventually replaced by the flash bulb.
In the 1920s, when Anna and Thomas died, most people died at home. The undertaker was called to take the body for embalming and placing in a coffin. The coffin was then returned to the deceased’s home for the wake.
Friends and relatives gathered in the home, and in the presence of the body, prayed for the soul of the departed and offered condolences to the family. It was the custom that someone watched beside the body through the nights until the funeral. This was the origin of the “wake” or “watching.” Prior to the use of embalming, the wake also served the purpose of making sure the body was deceased, thus assuring the person wasn’t buried alive.
Below is a poignant post-mortem photo of a man and his two small sons all in one coffin. The newspaper story about these deaths listed the cause of the deaths as “Cerebral Meningitis.” They are buried in the Doniphan, Nebraska Cemetery. The white oval was for a portrait that was not inserted into the photo.