The very essence of Victorian Post Mortem Photography is chilling.  They are of dead people, plain and simple.  So many people today have never even seen a dead person in real life.  The pictures in which the deceased appears to be sleeping are the least disturbing.  It's how we want to image them- resting and at peace for eternity.  The photographs where they prop the corpse up and pretend they are still alive are, of course, the eeriest.  Imagine the fright if someone tells you this photo is of a dead girl...

She is with her very alive parents in this mourning portrait, her pupils painted on since she probably had Night of the Living Dead zombie eyes, they say.  How did they get her to stand if she was dead?  Oh, they clamped her body into a stand and used wires to arrange her arms.  Dear God!  How macabre! 

Or, how about this admittedly creepy fireman?

For good measure, take a good long look at his horribly lifeless face and colorless eyes...

Well, as awesomely monstrous and horrific as this would be, I'm sorry, this is not real.  There has never been a true post mortem photograph where they used stands and wire to pose a cadaever Weekend at Bernie's style.  But wait, someone says, you can SEE the stand, there! By her feet...

There may be a stand.  Photography in its early stages was an exacting profession.  The shutter had to stay open for a frustratingly long time to get the shot and if people moved even in the slightest, it was ruined. Many times the photographer didn't even realize it until after the film was developed. Not to mention the time it took to set up equipment and pose your victims, er, clients- well, you didn't leave things to chance.  One common practice was to actually hold people into place using stands.  They were held in these positions for great lengths of time.  Smiling was usually forbidden, since it was too difficult an expression to hold still.  The resulting photos usually portrayed people who appeared as if they were just dug up from a not-too-fresh grave or wished they were in one.

The moral of the story?  If someone tries to tell you someone in full standing mode is a dead guy, don't buy it.

But don't forget that not every old picture of someone sitting or holding a sleeping baby is a picture of corpses either.  It can be difficult to tell and sometimes we will never be sure  if proof is absent.  Err on the side of caution and view any Victorian person as alive unless proven dead if you are making any sort of financial purchase.  If you are a collector of these rare postmortem photographs you probably have a million stories of sellers at antique stores and ebay claiming they have the genuine article when one glance at the smiling cherubs and stern matriarchs staring straight into the camera will tell you they were still amongst the living during the photo session.  They point to easily explainable clues such as painted on eyes (if you blinked the photographer was not going to waste his time taking another photo, especially for a group shot- you got his usually hasty artwork) or discolored skin (come on, people, this wasn't digital photography, the slightest shadow could cause skin to appear as though it were bruised or darkened). Some of this may be overenthusiasm for this bygone art form.  More likely, it is unscrupulous business people trying to rip people off.

Of course, if anyone out there has some actually proof of a true post mortem photo of a standing person, please let me know about it.  It's like the Holy Grail of postmortem photography, you know it doesn't exist, but you can't help wishing to find it.