The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 made portraiture much more commonplace, as many of those who were unable to afford the commission of a painted portrait could afford to sit for a photography session. This cheaper and quicker method also provided the middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones.
The practice eventually peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century and died out as "snapshot" photography became more commonplace, although a few examples of formal memorial portraits were still being produced well into the 20th century. A thorough history of post-mortem photography can seen in the award winning Sleeping Beauty book series, which showcases the memorial and post-mortem photography collection privately held by Dr. Stanley B. Burns and the Burns Archive.
The earliest post-mortem photographs are usually close-ups of the face or shots of the full body and rarely include thecoffin. The subject is usually depicted so as to seem in a deep sleep, or else arranged to appear more lifelike. Children were often shown in repose on a couch or in a crib, sometimes posed with a favorite toy or other plaything. It was not uncommon to photograph very young children with a family member, most frequently the mother. Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types.
While some images, (especially tintypes and ambrotypes), have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse, it is untrue that metal stands and other devices were used to pose the dead as though they were living. The use by photographers of a stand or arm rest (sometimes referred to as a Brady stand), which aided living persons to remain still long enough for the camera's lengthy exposure time, has given rise to this myth. While nineteenth century people may have wished their loved ones to look their best in a memorial photograph, evidence of a metal stand should be understood as proof that the subject was a living person.
Later photographic examples show the subject in a coffin. Some very late examples show the deceased in a coffin with a large group of funeral attendees; this type of photograph was especially popular in Europe and less common in the United States.
Post-mortem photography is still practiced in some areas of the world such as Eastern Europe. Photographs, especially depicting persons who were considered to be very holy lying in their coffins, are still circulated among faithful Eastern Catholic,Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians.
A variation of the memorial portrait involves photographing the family with a shrine (usually including a living portrait) dedicated to the deceased.