Memento Mori in 19th century America: the death of Irish emigrant Mrs Fagan.

I have just been  reading  a very fascinating blogpost by Damian Sheils of the Irish in the American Civil war  about a man called James Fagan.  James who was born in Athlone, he emigrated from Ireland, fought with the  3rd US Infantry in the American Civil War.  As I read through the post,  I came across a fascinating  pieces on the death of his wife which immediately reminded me of the film The Others, where the character  Grace played by Nicole Kidman, finds a ‘book of the dead’ an album of Memento Mori  style  portraits also known as post-mortem portraits, of deceased corpses.

Following his wife’s death,   James  Fagan had a post-mortem photograph commissioned  of her body posed in a coffin.  Although this may sound macabre to modern ears this was at one time a perfectly normal occurrence. Post mortem photography involves the photographing of the deceased, often in their coffins or posed as if sleeping. The corpse was often posed beside living family members.  This practice very popular in Europe and but less so in  America during the 19th century. The body was propped and  eyes opened  all in an attempt to make the corpse life like or positioned to look as if sleeping.   I must confess that  any of the images  of post-mortem photography I have seen  make me uneasy, there is something so sad and heart wrenching but at the same time truly creepy about these photos.


Parents posing with their deceased daughter

These photographs provided family members with a  keepsake and a way   remember the deceased.  Mortality rates were very high for children during this period so these photos were  especially common for  infants and young children, who were posed to look like they were sleeping.   This was often the only image  the parents had of their child and was a treasured possession. According to Wikipediea ‘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‘.

With regards to James Fagan, his wife’s  photo was described in a  newspaper  as follows (taken from blog post by Damian Sheils)

After the death of the first Mrs. Fegan, he employed a photographer to testify to his love for the dead and his respect for his officers. The photograph was taken on a 10 x 14 inch plate, and depicted Mrs. Fegan after death, surrounded by burning candles, with a saucer filled with earth from old Ireland at the head of the handsome coffin in which the remains were. Beside the body, attired in full dress uniform, knelt the sergeant. The expression of his face was untranslatable. The photograph was a mixture of the grotesque, the horrible and the piteous. The sergeant meant it for the best, and spent two months’ pay in having a lot of these souvenirs made, one of which he presented, “in memory of the late Mrs. Fegan with his rispictful compliments,” to each officer of the Third Infantry on duty at Fort Dodge at the time. Few that have seen one of these photographs will ever forget it. Significant trifles of the picture were that the sergeant had on white Berlin cotton gloves and also wore the black leather neck stock.’ (9)

The picture was unusual as James Fagan looked distressed in the photo ‘the expression of this face was untranslatable‘.   Any of the photos I have seen which have living adults the expression on their faces are always solemn but never expressive.  Thus  I can understand how those who saw the photo would ‘never forget it‘ most likely because of Fagan’s expression.

What was also interesting was the fact that a saucer of soil from Ireland was placed at the head of Mrs Fagan’s coffin. It seems that James or his wife when leaving Ireland had brought some earth with them to their new home.  The saucer of earth was most likely buried with Mrs Fagan.  I wonder how many of those who emigrated would have taken  a physical  part of Ireland  within them? The majority who left  Ireland in the 19th century especially around the time of the famine would have had few possession and a piece of soil would have been easy to obtain and pack.  According to the  Irish company Auld Sod Exporting Company who exports Irish soil to America,  many modern Irish emigrants have a desire to be buried with a piece of Ireland . The company’s website notes that it was common for 19th century emigrants to take some soil with them when leaving Ireland.

These customs although strange to the modern world must have brought comfort to the families left behind and were for them a valid way of remembering the dead.


Enoch, N. 2013. ‘Morbid gallery reveals how Victorians took photos of their Dead relatives’

Sheils, D. 2013. ‘Drop the lifinant a curtsey woman the long service of sergeant James Fegan 3rd US Infantry’,—Dublin-company-cleans-up-with-Irelands-muck-183770191.html

6 comments on “Memento Mori in 19th century America: the death of Irish emigrant Mrs Fagan.

  1. I had just read the post from Irish in the American Civil war and was left wondering about a ‘memento mori’ portrait when I saw your post. I suppose this is the precursor to our modern day memorial card and prior to photography high status people often had the death mask? I personally liked that people would have the memento mori picture as a lasting remembrance of their loved one, but I guess it would of necessity have been restricted to ‘ good looking ‘ corpses. Interesting post on a fascinating subject – thanks! 🙂

  2. Many thanks for the post Louise, i am delighted to learn about these postmortem photographs. We have a photograph of my great great grandmother laid out on her deathbed, probably taken late 19 or early 20 century. The interesting thing is this photo was printed up as a postcard, and presumably was intended to be sent to this ladies relatives overseas. It is also the only photo we have of that generation. Michael

  3. Sharon says:

    I remember reading that St Leo’s Bell on Inishturk was broken up and pieces taken by islanders emigrating in the 19th century. Really interesting post!!

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