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Images of Death


Victorian-era families often had photographs taken of their dead. The book ‘Sleeping Beauty II’ continues looking at how our views of mortality have changed.



One summer afternoon almost a century ago, Henry Buehman adjusted his bulky camera, which was mounted on a crude wooden tripod. He checked the lighting and focused his lens.

When he was satisfied with both the light and focus, he stepped back and took another look. A small bouquet in the child’s hand didn’t look quite right, so he paused to rearrange several of the rosebuds. Once again, he peered into the camera, then took his picture. The photography session was routine except for one thing. The child being photographed was dead.

A new book suggests that photographing a dead family member was fairly common a century ago.

Dr. Stanley Burns, a practicing ophthalmic surgeon in New York City, has published a selection of Victorian-era death images from his personal collection. “Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement and the Family in Memorial Photography” is a sequel to “Sleeping Beauty I” which was published in 1991. His later collection includes more than 140 images gleaned from about a dozen countries. The images document how the way we view death has changed in recent years.

“Sleeping Beauty II” is published by the Burns Archives and gets its title from images that were popular during the Victorian era. It was a photographic style in which death was beautified and romanticized by photographers throughout America and Europe. Although none of Buehman’s photographs is in the book, his remarkable collection can be seen at the Arizona Historical Society.

Debra Shelton, head of the library and archives of the Arizona Historical Society, believes the Buehman collection is one of the finest of its kind in the country. She points out that three generations of the Buehman family – Henry, son Albert and eventually grandson Renick – documented people and events in the Southwest for over 75 years, and during that period they took dozens of death images in Arizona and northern Mexico.

Death images are scarce, and there is probably a logical reason for this.

In a telephone interview from his home, Burns suggested that most death images from the early years of the last century were destroyed as tastes changed and mourning became more private.

“I think it is important to see where we have been culturally, and that is one of the reasons why I decided to publish a selection of my postmortem and memorial photographs,” he said. He added that there is a great void in how we cope with the topic of death.

He selected the images for his book from his massive, private collection, which now numbers over 200,000 photographs. Some of his death images were featured in the film “The Others,” a story about a family living in a haunted house.

Why were death images so important, especially during the Victorian era?

Burns thinks it might be simply because the images were often the only tangible evidence that a departed child had lived or once been a member of the family.

Photographs of dead family members were sometimes placed in elaborate frames for display in the front parlors of homes, while other, smaller images were worn in lockets as pieces of mourning jewelry.

The earliest examples of death photography were stark, disturbing and direct. The deceased were occasionally photographed on a bare board or bench with eyes open and, more often than not, staring directly into the camera. Later, this image was softened with such props as flowers, lace and occasionally even statuary. The dead, especially young children, were posed as if peacefully asleep, their images evoking a romantic Victorian view of death.

Although not as popular as in earlier years, death images are occasionally still taken in Tucson.

Bonnie Lindstrom-Knoblock, director of hospice services at the Carondelet Health Network, 1802 W. St. Mary’s Road, believes that photographs can sometimes be a helpful tool in dealing with grief.

“A photograph helps establish the reality of death for many people,” she said, and she pointed out that death images can be used by families as a positive affirmation of that final passage.

“People handle grief in many different ways, and if a photo can help bring about healing, I believe it is a legitimate tool,” she added.

Arlene Carlson, a therapist at Carondelet, agreed.

“People should be allowed to grieve in their own way without judgment,” she said. “Photographs can help surviving family members celebrate the departed person’s life in a way that is extremely beneficial.”

Leo Carrillo of Carrillo Funeral Home of Tucson said that although photographs are seldom taken in his facilities following a death, images are often used to celebrate a person’s life. They can, and often do, he said, provide a great deal of comfort to the surviving family members and friends.

Burns summed up his book by pointing out yet another reason for publishing “Sleeping Beauty II.” He said there was a time when the parlors of our homes were the original “funeral parlors,” and because death dropped by often, it was dealt with in an unflinching manner. But times have changed.

“We live in a youth-oriented culture that does not deal easily with the realities of life,” he said. “Because of the advances in medicine, we live to be old, but death is somehow removed from our everyday life.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Stanley Burns/Sleeping Beauty II

“Nun and Her Two Sisters,” a daguerreotype taken in 1853, shows a deceased nun joined by a member of her family and another nun. Postmortem photos were frequently taken of church personnel during this time.

Famous French author, dramatist and poet Victor Hugo shown on his deathbed in 1885.

PHOTO CREDIT: Arizona Historical Society

Photos, such as the one of the deceased man above, were ordered by grieving families as a way to remember their loved ones.

This southern Arizona family would have paid Henry Buehman about $5 to take this photo of them gathered with the dead baby.


“Sleeping Beauty II” features photos from Stanley Burns’ private collection.

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