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June 3, 1992

Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America

Author Affiliations

Yale University School of Medicine New Haven, Conn

JAMA. 1992;267(21):2960-2961. doi:10.1001/jama.1992.03480210122048

This article is only available in the PDF format. Download the PDF to view the article, as well as its associated figures and tables.


On many levels, this is a remarkable book. Its main focus is a chronological selection of 76 postmortem photographs taken from 1840 through 1930. Many of these reach the stature of high art.

Our personal favorite is the anonymous daguerreotype from circa 1842 entitled "Father With Daughter" (No. 13 in this collection). It conveys the family tragedy of early childhood death, a phenomenon so common in the United States in the mid-19th century that in some communities the rate of survival of children to age 10 years was less than 50%. The picture emphasizes that death at that time most often occurred in the home, instead of in a hospital, and that the grieving process was far more personal and intimate. It thus illustrates how dramatically our culture has changed its relationship with death and dying.

Another poignant picture is "Died From Scarlet Fever" (No. 52), by Maynard Gates. This