Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America by Stanley Burns, M.D.

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America

Author: Stanley Burns, M.D.

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Contains photographs of dead people, many children, from the turn of the 19th century and while beautiful, it is somewhat morbid. If you have an aversion to such photography, give this review a skip.

Type of Book: Photography

Availability: While I am unsure if this book is considered rare, per se, it only had two editions.  Mine is from the second edition.  Clearly, the first editions are far more expensive, but the second editions are pricy as well.  One can obtain a copy of either edition if one is willing to pay between $400-$1000 USD. Had The Strand not had a copy with a damaged book jacket selling for cheap, I would not have a copy. Amazon appears to be the best source for this book:

Comments: This book is one of my most prized books. I waited for almost a decade to be able to afford a copy, and even after I ordered it, I bit my nails until it arrived for fear that there was some mistake and they were going to notify me that I had been undercharged. Reading this book on loan from a library began my intense interest in memorial and death photography. It is one of those treasured books that I still cannot believe I own.

This book examines postmortem photography from 1840-1930. A practice that may seem morbid to some, death photography was actually quite common for those who could afford it. In a time when photography was still expensive, many times these photographs of the dead would be the sole picture people would have to remember their loved one, especially if the deceased was a child. The pictures in this book will often stay with those who have just glanced through it. After discussions online, there have been a number of times wherein people who could remember a particular image sent me messages asking me if I could provide details. One photo in particular, “The Murdered Parsons Family,” generates more messages than any other. The picture shows a father, a wife, and their three children, laid out on a bed like cord wood, bullet wounds visible on their faces and bodies. I think this is the most remembered picture because it plays into so many different modern fears. Home invasions, violent murder, children in danger. Many of the pictures in this book depict deaths that seem like they could no longer happen to affluent Americans. Emaciated babies and typhoid victims are thin on the ground these days. Kids dying from bullets are not. I think every person willing to have a look at this book will find a picture that will haunt them. Or, as was my case, many that will haunt them.

But most of the time we will have no real idea why certain photographs affect us other than the obvious pathos involved in looking at the dead. To this day I am not sure why I am so deeply interested in these photographs. Stanley Burns says in his preface, “Nineteenth-century Americans knew how to respond to these images. Today there is no culturally nominative response to postmortem photographs.” And that is why many of us, myself included, are awe-struck by these photographs, unable really to explain what we find so appealing and appalling about them.

Though many pictures in this book affected me, during the reading I did before writing this entree one photograph seemed to affect me the most. And bear in mind that I can on some level state intellectually what interested me in this photograph, there is likely a visceral response that I could never express.


This picture is quite striking to me. As Burns indicates in the notes for this picture, it is uncommon to see fathers posing with their dead children. More often than not, mothers posed, or the child was photographed alone.  That the father is the primary parent in this photograph is touching because it is so atypical.

Another poignant part of the picture is not immediately obvious, but if you look in the lower left hand corner, you will see the mother’s hand stabilizing the pillows that prop up her dead daughter.  That action was among one of the last things she could do to help capture the memory of her child, a little girl whose death took her far beyond the reach of a mother’s desire to nurture.

And my god, the little girl…  In many of the photographs in Burns’ book, the children look like they are sleeping.  But some look obviously dead, with bloody faces, severe emaciation, or evidence of disease on their still bodies.  This little girl straddles the line between sleeping and hard death.  As you look at her, you can tell there is something very off about her eyes and the pose she is in.  It looks like she is either beginning rigor mortis or leaving it.  But by not appearing that she is sleeping, and by not looking as horrible as some of the corpses in this book, she is in a netherworld where, to the casual viewer, it may not immediately be evident what is happening.

This and other pictures like it give lie to some of the ideas I have learned from history.   Many sources claim that until the time of American urbanization and complete industrialization, life was cheap and the lives of children even cheaper.   These sources claim that couples had many children not only to use as a labor force, but also to ensure that at least a couple survived to adulthood. Childhood was an unsentimental time because parents could not get attached to their children. The pictures in Sleeping Beauty make it clear that even when money was tight, when photography resources were limited, and even when life seemed cheap, it was never really quite that way.  People deeply mourned their dead, especially their children, and paid money to make sure that there was some evidence that a dead person existed beyond simply the memories of those who loved them.  This comforts me.  It tells me that human beings are often much the same no matter when they lived in history.   These pictures show me that life was not so cheap even when I assumed it was.

The book is filled with pictures like this, heartbreaking looks into the ways that parents handled the deaths of their children, but not all the pictures are of families. Badmen in their coffins, murder victims, as well as photos of memorial picture presentation in jewelry or watches. Hopefully, one day this book will be released for a third printing, making it somewhat more affordable for people to get their hands on a copy. It is truly a beautiful, haunting book.

12 thoughts on “Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America by Stanley Burns, M.D.

  1. hi.
    i am shelly lyme,17 from china,
    i am looking the book called Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America
    i have searched for it in the internet,but it can be hardly found in china.and then i search for it in the google. what frustrated me was that there only a little thing about the book, then i read the article written by you, it’s great, i am interested in the book and i am a little crazy about the pictures in the book.they made me cold, but i love that feeling very much
    , so if you don’t mind, i wonder if you can write back to me ,
    muxuyanxia@hotmail.com this is my e-mail address, thx : )

    1. Hi, Shelly. I’m happy to answer any questions you have about the book. It’s an amazing look at a part of history that is often not discussed and I can see how they made you feel cold. If you have anything you want to know, drop me a line at anita at ireadoddbooks dot com or leave me another comment here.

  2. Ha..I just bought a first edition signed!! And for $275!!! I am doing the same thing, waiting for a notice that there has been a mistake. I got it on ebay and talked to the seller, so I’m hoping everything is fine. I’m still in shock.

    1. God, that is an amazing score. I can see how some of the rarer, more expensive books are going for less given the economy. Fingers crossed you get it safe and sound. All of my Stanley Burns archive books are my favorites. If I were a rich woman I would own them all.

  3. I requested this book through the interlibrary loan system and was shocked that they were able to locate a copy for me. Looking at the photos releases many thoughts and emotions – sadness, mostly, and the appreciation of the modern world we live in now. I also am fascinated by the strange marriage of the beauty and horror of death as depicted in photography.

    My 11-year-old son picked up the book and after looking through it, he brought it to me. “This is the scariest picture I’ve ever seen” he said. The book was open to the 3 photos of the same emaciated, open eyed, dead child. Truth be told, it was one that haunted me the most. I sat down with both my kids – my daughter is 9- and I explained that many of the photos are of children, but that these were taken a long, long time ago. Back when children died of diseases and sicknesses that we have medicines for now.

    1. whoops, my post sent too soon. Anyway, my kids looked through the entire book with me and they didn’t really say much about it. Many parents might questions letting their children look at photos like this, but as long as I was there and could answer any questions, I thought it was probably okay.

      Some people question why anyone would be interested in memorial photography anyway. But I feel it’s an important part of history. Creepy, yeah. But life can be creepy and scary. I just wish it wasn’t so difficult to obtain books such as this. What others can you recommend? BTW, my name is Julianne.

      1. Hi, Julianne! I find death photography fascinating, too, and I am often challenged when it come to explaining why. There is something about the solemnity of death we see in those pictures that we are deprived of in modern life. Or maybe it isn’t that. I mean, death is still solemn but those pictures provide an intimacy with death that is striking and at times very uncomfortable. In an age and place where most of us do not deal with our dead, down to no longer even having at-home wakes, it challenges something in us that is not quite squeamish but along those lines, a sense that death is so far removed from us that we don’t know how to react to such things.

        I actually am thinking of having a themed week on this site wherein I will feature and discuss books about death photography, ranging the gamut of books like this to books of crime scenes. The way the image of dead body in all its extremes is viewed and curated fascinates a lot of people. There is a new Sleeping Beauty book from the Burns Archive that focuses exclusively on dead children from the beginnings of photography to very recent images. I know I will be giving away a copy of that book during this themed week so look back in August or early September not only for more resources but also for a chance to win. /shameless promotion

        Getting these books can be very hard. Even the cheapest tend to be expensive when released and they never have a large print run. Unfortunately online sellers sometimes capitalize on the perception that all of these books must be out of print because I have seen Sleeping Beauty III going for three times its sale price on places like Amazon and eBay. Here’s one lesser example:
        http://www.burnspress.com/
        http://cgi.ebay.com/Sleeping-Beauty-III-3-Death-Photography-Stanley-Burns-/270757670046?pt=US_Nonfiction_Book&hash=item3f0a6a2c9e

        So always go straight to the source if you can. Sleeping Beauty II is still in print, too. I’ve seen it going for over $600 for crappy used copies on Amazon. It’s insane. So check the Burns Archive site and blog because that’s where you can get the best deal and they also give readers a heads-up when new titles are released (and the Burns Archive have other, non-death but equally absorbing collections, like the medical collections):
        http://www.burnspress.com/
        http://www.burnsarchive.com/
        http://theburnsarchive.blogspot.com/

        Burns is the best place for these sorts of images in terms of books but there are some online sources as well. I have not been a member of http://thanatos.net for a long time but once upon a time ago, the site was an excellent source. It may still be. Thanatos.net may have changed (though I don’t think it has) but when I was a member the site was intellectual and respectful. The galleries were pretty good, as was the community message board.

        Hope this helps. I’m always so glad to hear from people who are drawn to these images, too.

  4. I hope to obtain this book for my Christmas and birthday! Yes,you could say it is considered morbid,but I find it fascinating and a part of our history that is most inportant.I am sure I will be haunted by some pictures,I hope I am.I know my family who came to America in 1649 and 1842 ,were a part of this photagraphy.Atleast I hope so,because I find it very compassionate. I am for some reason very drawn to this book!
    Respectfully, Mary Lorenzo

  5. I just became aware of this book in a unusual way. I am watching a japanese movie on NetFlix called “GOTH”. One of the characters was looking at this book in the library. I just thought I would look it up and see if it really existed or if it was done for the film.
    I guess I have a morbid curiousity but; I might like to find this in a library sometime to look through.
    I doubt I would want to buy it though.

  6. Is it true some deceased were posed standing? I am just curious because a friend of mine said it was impossible to pose a corpse in a standing position, and that “posing stands” we’re for the fidgety living people, while the photo was being taken.

  7. Coming from an ethnic (Hungarian) immigrant family, these types of portraits were common when my mother was a young girl. She often told me of her neighbor who displayed a postmortem portrait of her dead daughter on the mantel in their living room. The young woman had died from botulism after eating improperly canned food. For some reason, that horrified me far more than the picture! Back in 1993, I read an article in Smithsonian Magazine about postmortem photography, and Dr. Burns’ collection was referenced. Even though money was tight, I ordered a copy of Sleeping Beauty through our local WaldenBooks (remember them?) for $40.00. I still have my copy, and look through it every now and then. The image of Neillie, the little girl with ring curls, has never left me, especially when I read the letter that accompanied the picture. The sorrow and grief from this little girl’s death in the 1840’s is as real and raw as if she had died yesterday. Even though the death of children was sadly commonplace in those times, the feelings of grief and loss are universal and immediate. My heart goes out to those parents, now long dead themselves, who endured this sadness. Truly a moving and profound book and one I will never get rid of.

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