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Please Note: This episode contains post-mortem photographs: those of people taken after their death. If you would prefer not to see those images, please feel welcome to look away from the screen at 0:17 to 0:27 and listen along.

Grief is a universal human experience. In the 1800s families around the world took pictures of their loved one’s bodies to cope with their loss, and today, researchers have found evidence that this unique method really does help people through the grieving process.

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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Image Source:
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[♪INTRO].

Grief is a universal human experience, and we’ve been developing ways to cope with loss for millennia. Each culture and generation has its own traditions, but one of the more unique methods of grieving emerged during the 1800s alongside the invention of photography.

When a loved one passed away, families around the world began hiring photographers to take pictures of that person’s body, and the family would sometimes pose with the body, too. This practice is often called post-mortem photography or death photography. And while it might not be one of the most well-known traditions, researchers have found it really does help people through the grieving process.

Today, we use cameras and phones to take tons of pictures of those we love. But before the 1830s, there wasn’t really a way to do that. Sure, you could have an artist paint a portrait of you, but there was no guarantee that the finished painting would be accurate.

And besides, the average family couldn’t afford a formal portrait at all. Then came the invention of daguerreotype photography. Daguerreotype photography used a copper plate coated with silver iodide to take a picture.

After the camera exposed the plate to light, you could put the plate in some mercury vapors to start a chemical reaction and get an image. These photographs were much less expensive than paintings, so families could get actual images of their loved ones. But the photographs still weren’t cheap.

They were relatively expensive if you were part of the working class, so people didn’t have them taken often. As a result, post-mortem photography became the average family’s last — and sometimes only — chance to capture an image of those close to them. Families often displayed these pictures proudly on walls and mantles.

And some people even had post-mortem photographs taken of their furry family members, too! Which I totally understand. This practice was more than just an interesting historical tidbit, though: Research has found that these photos gave — and still give! — people an effective way to cope with grief.

First, these photographs can make it easier for people to talk about their loss. If you’ve ever flipped through a scrapbook or photo album with an older family member, you may have experienced this as they’ve shared memories of people you’ve never met. When a person experiences a traumatic incident like the death of a loved one, they sometimes struggle to articulate their thoughts and feelings — or to speak about their experience at all.

But post-mortem photographs help with that. They’re visual proof that a loved one actually existed, which can help people feel like their grief is legitimate and worth talking about. It’s just easier to talk about these things if you have photos and stories to share.

And for many, telling those stories is a major step in coming to terms with their loss. Next, death photographs also serve as a way of strengthening an emotional connection between the person who passed away and the person viewing the photo. When you look at a photograph, your brain gives it a symbolic meaning, which is tied to your emotions.

For instance, looking at a picture from one of your favorite vacations can help you reconnect with the giddy joy you experienced as that shot was taken. According to a 2004 paper from the Canadian Art Therapy Association Journal, this happens because photos freeze an exact moment in time. So looking at one makes you feel like you’re physically present in that moment.

So when someone looks at a photograph of a deceased loved one, it can feel like they’re right there with them, allowing them to maintain their emotional connection with that person. And while Western psychologists used to think this was a bad thing that prolonged grief, newer research shows that maintaining those connections is actually a healthy way to cope with loss. Finally, for some, the grieving process can be prolonged by the fear that by moving on, they’ll eventually forget their deceased loved ones.

This may have been a huge thing in the 19th century, because mortality rates were extremely high. Like, in 1830s England, the average life expectancy was in the high 30s due to poor living conditions, rampant disease, and high infant mortality rates. Almost 20% of children died before the age of five.

So post-mortem photographs gave people a way to capture an image of their friends or family that preserved their memories of the deceased long after their death. And it can do the same for people today. Multiple studies have shown that post-mortem photography is especially helpful for parents who have lost an infant either before or shortly after birth.

Unlike with the death of an older family member, parents are often left with few mementos of their child. So post-mortem photographs not only provide that for them; they’re also proof that their baby existed. Additionally, these photos can help parents grieve by allowing them to tell their child’s story.

All of the hopes and dreams they had for their kid still matter, and pictures give parents a way to share those stories. In fact, one 2007 paper, which reviewed three studies about this, found that these pictures can be an essential tool for coping with the loss of an infant. When surveyed, an impressive 95 to 100 percent of participants said post-mortem photos of their babies were a “helpful and important” part of their grieving process.

So while grief and mourning will always be tough, post-mortem photography can help make the process just a little easier. And when it comes to something like grief, even something that makes it “just a little” easier counts for a lot. This episode was about pretty heavy topics, so if you’d like to watch something a little lighter after this, you can check out our episode about animal-assisted therapy.

Which also involves some fascinating psychology. And if you want to explore a different field of science, you can also check out SciShow. Space or our main SciShow channel.

As always, though, thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych. [ ♪OUTRO ].