Memorial Photography in St. Louis

31, October 2016

NHPRC logoThe Picturing 1930s St. Louis: Sievers Studio Collection project is made possible by an NHPRC grant from the National Archives.

Photo of man in casketUnidentified older man in a casket at Pentecostal Mission Church, 4017 Easton Avenue. Photo by Isaac Sievers, March 1931. Missouri History Museum.

Today is Halloween, a day when thoughts naturally turn to the occult, the supernatural, and the otherworldly. Photos of the dead fall squarely in this category, right? Not to previous generations of Americans!

From the dawn of photography in the late 1830s through the early decades of the 20th century, grieving Americans frequently hired professional photographers, including the Sievers Studio, to capture one final moment with their lost loved ones as a way of coping with their grief. The goal of early memorial photos, also known as post-mortem photos, was to capture a likeness of the deceased so he or she could be remembered. Bodies were often posed either sitting or laid out as if asleep. The resulting photos were particularly valuable to some families because, in the early days of photography, a memorial photo may have been the only image ever captured of the deceased. These photos were often sent to relatives, displayed prominently in homes, or even made into jewelry.

Black-and-white photo of family at Valhalla CemeteryThe Urban family gathered in Valhalla Cemetery after the funeral of an unidentified relative. Photo by Ed Meyer, May 1931. Missouri History Museum.

By the time the Sievers Studio was taking memorial photos in the 1920s and 1930s, the practice was already on the decline. Advances in medicine and technology helped prevent many early deaths, and advances in photography made it easier for individuals to be photographed while still alive. Although many mainstream middle-class Americans had abandoned memorial photography, it remained an important part of the grieving process among various ethnic, immigrant, and working-class groups. However, the emphasis shifted from capturing a detailed likeness of the deceased to depicting the funerary scene as a whole, as well as the survivors who were left to carry on.

Black-and-white photo of casket at Valhalla CemeteryGrave of the unidentified Urban family member at Valhalla Cemetery, piled high with flowers. Photo by Ed Meyer, May 1931. Missouri History Museum.

Although memorial photos from the Sievers Studio Collection differ greatly from the stark portraits of the dead taken during the Victorian era, they still demonstrate the universal desire to capture and hold one last relic of a departed loved one. No matter how much has changed about the mourning process and the way Americans express grief, this desire has remained constant.

—Lauren Sallwasser, NHPRC Processing Archivist

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