Photography in Maine's St. John Valley used to be much more morbid than it is now. Credit: Stock image

Long before “selfies” and social media became the standard ways to capture and preserve life memories, there was an equally popular — if a bit morbid — fad.

Postmortem photography — the photographing of a deceased loved one — was every bit as normal in the 19th and early 20th centuries as whipping out a smartphone today to snap a vacation photo.

This was especially true up in the St. John Valley where posed photographs of deceased family members were treasured keepsakes and often the only visual evidence of the person’s life.

“I know, it does seem strange to a lot of people,” said Alison Voisine of Fort Kent. “But when I was growing up it was just normal to have photos of [deceased] relatives in the caskets and they were displayed in the family photo albums.”

In her family, Voisine said, her grandmother and great-grandmother documented much of the family’s history, and thanks to that Voisine said she has an idea of what some of her ancestors look like.

“I’d look in these albums and on one page there would be a birthday party or family get together and then on the next page a funeral with a person I’d never had the chance to meet in the casket,” she said. “Then turn the page and there’s a Christmas party.”

According to Chad Pelletier, president of the Fort Kent Historical Society, the practice of photographing the dead goes back to the earliest days of photography and was an important part of the passing of a life in northern Maine.

“In some cases, the pictures of the deceased loved one may have been the only photo the family had of that person,” Pelletier said. “They would take a lot of time to pose the person and make sure everything looked just right.”

Rather than hide the photos away, he said, the practice was to put them on prominent display in the home.

“You really don’t see it these days,” Pelletier said.

Tom Daigle, owner of the local funeral home, said he’s heard of the practice but never had anyone request a formal sitting prior to a funeral.

“No, this is not something I’ve ever seen,” Daigle said. “And it’s nothing I have ever been asked to do.”

Back when the tradition was popular, Voisine said it was not uncommon for people to not only examine the photos to comment on the dearly departed appearance, but also what else was in the photo.

“I remember hearing them talk about who had more flowers,” she said with a laugh.

Pelletier is unsure why the practice ceased, but feels it has a lot to do with the modernization of how death is treated.

“Customs have really changed,” he said. “It used to be the deceased was waked in the home for three days and every part of the funeral, from preparing the body to building the casket to digging the grave, was completed locally by family or friends.”

Given the time and effort these family and friends put into making sure the dearly departed was sent off with love, it made sense to document it with a photograph, a luxury that for some may have been the only time they took that one-time expense.

In his own family, Pelletier said he had a great-aunt known for her after life “posing” skills.

“She was famous for it,” he said. “She would come in and prop the person up in the casket so they looked their best.”

Many times, Pelletier said, items important to the deceased were placed around the casket as sort of afterlife props.

“I really like that,” Voisine said. “You can look beyond the person and see their surroundings and get a story of their life.”

Maybe it is because her old family albums are filled with the postmortem photographs, but Voisine said the custom has long fascinated her.

“I remember going to friends’ houses here in the area and seeing the same things in their family albums,” she said. “It was not until a person from Connecticut joined our circle and was completely scandalized by them that we considered them anything but normal.”

For her part, Voisine is glad the images were captured decades ago.

“My grandfather died when my mom was really young so the only photos I have seen of him he was in his casket,” she said, “There are a lot of my long dead relatives that those are the only photos we have, but because of them, I can picture what they looked like alive and enjoying life.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.