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on August 8, 2000
Dr. Stanley Burns, author of "Sleeping Beauty" and I produced "Death In America, A Chronological History Of Illness and Death" which is based on Sleeping Beauty and includes many of the images from the book. The Burns Archive, which houses the collected images, is the single largest privately held collection of photographs in the world. With more than 500,000 images, the collection specializes in post-mortum and medical photograhy (ref: Ken Burns "Civil War" - no family relation). Death In America has been airing nationally on public television since 1998 and can be seen at [...] The type post-mortum photography chronicled in Sleeping Beauty was very expensive and nearly always a great sacrifice on the part of the family. If, as an example, you were a farmer in 1850 making a few dollars each month, one photograph could easily cost you several months pay. It is virtually impossible for us today to understand the pre-photographic mind. Until the invention of photography the average family had no way to hold a keepsake of their loved one. This one image was so precious an object that they were worn as jewelry and in later years even sent to relatives as post cards. One of the most important aspects of "Sleeping Beauty" is Dr. Burns' historical chronology which describes each image, tells the story behind the image and gives the reader a real sense of the social and cultural influences of the time. Examples include physicians keeping grave-robbers on retainer for over 250 years, the Bayer Company inventing Heroin, the development of the germ-theory of disease and the editor of the Ladies Home Journal creating the "Living Room". Death In America has to date been seen by approximately 45 million viewers. In September of 2000, PBS will begin running a new program on death by Bill Moyers. Many stations will run Death In America as a companion piece. If anyone wishes to contact the producers of our program they can respond to our e-mail at
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on May 23, 1999
I was interested to find "Sleeping Beauty" after reading about it on the webpage of the PBS documentary "Death In America," which was based on this book. Unfortunately, I discovered it was out of print, but managed to borrow a copy through an interlibrary loan. I found it to be utterly fascinating. Some of the photos were beautifully done, resembling quietly sleeping children, while others were quite disturbing as the subjects were very obviously deceased. Particularly shocking were a pair of photos, one of a little boy lying on a bed with his toy ball, staring sadly at the camera, and another of the same boy after death. It is a sad reminder of the fact that the infant mortality rate during this time was so high, and often these were the only portraits the family might have of a child. It is incredible to think that a family might treasure such mementos, but I think of the now fairly commonplace practice of photographing miscarried or stillborn babies, and understand to an extent the need to have "proof" that this person existed.
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on October 19, 1998
I first saw this book when I was working in a library about three years ago. Now that I've decided to purchase it, I come to find it is no longer being published. Although it is a little disturbing at first it shows death as a part of life, as it used to be at the turn of the century.
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on December 11, 2009
When I first discovered Victorian postmortem photography, I was intrigued, having always found death and decay in art equally as interesting as birth and growth. Setting out to find these "death pictures" as she described them, I came upon Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America. Dr. Burns presents not only an impressive collection, but a thorough preface about the history of postmortem photography and its rise and fall in popularity. He follows the collection with descriptive captions and backstory for every picture, and an index of a full chronology of Death in America and related, and a guide on identifying photos by era.
The collection of photographs begins with the quote "Secure the shadow `ere the substance fade", which is a newspaper quote about memorial photography from the early days of its popularity. The collection contains many diverse pictures, some with subjects modified to look as if they are still alive (eyelid painting and pink cheek tinting), some without any dead subjects at all (photographs of mourners, or of cemeteries). They range from beautiful and sad photographs of parents with their dead infants to disturbing pictures of corpses with blood, evidence of malnourishment or head lesions, or even one photograph of an entire murdered family laid out in their Sunday best with head wounds in plain view. The collection also includes, not just anonymous people, but also images of famous people laid out in their coffins including Jesse James and the only surviving image of Abraham Lincoln in his coffin, saved by his secretary of War, Stanton, the same man who forbade photographs be taken during his funeral tour. The most interesting photographs to me were of a boy, dead from Scarlet Fever, photographed through a window because of quarantine, and a girl photographed 9 days after death but still remarkably well preserved.
This book was beautiful, very interesting, and highly informative. Nowadays when a loved one dies, we have photographs from their entire life to remember them by (although postmortem photography is still a small but functioning business), but these photographs come from an era where most families owned no photographs, and photographs were amazingly expensive. People may look upon postmortem photography as distasteful or `gross', but in those days, a photo of a loved one who was no longer with a family was a treasured and wonderful way to remember someone special.
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on July 2, 2015
As a retired funeral director and embalmer I find it unfortunate that few people take memorial or death photographs of their deceased loved ones anymore. Maybe I should have been around in the Victorian Era. This book and its two companion books are the best there is in this little and long forgotten/neglected niche. Beautiful, thought provoking, and stirring. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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on June 29, 2001
Selection of postmortem photographs from the "Burns Archive," which contains over 500,000 vintage prints including the world's largest collection of early medical photographs. Printed in two very limited editions - fascinating collection. Extensively illustrated with photgraphs and accompanied by a chronological essay on death in America, and a bibliography. Provocative and unsettling.
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on January 26, 1999
This may be the only monograph on 19th century post-mortem photography in America. The reproductions are beautifully done and the introductory text summarizes the use and importance of this unique genre. The author calls attention to the universality of death and how issues of death were addressed more openly than they are today. This is a must for photography-lovers, especially for thost who are interested in portraiture.
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on July 12, 2006
Just amazing. Grabbed a copy of this pretty cheap, I mean as cheap as they get, and I believe I like his second one better, but I just had to have it. You can find most of the photos as reference in other volumes and articles, but if you can grab a copy without a bank loan, DO IT!
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on August 27, 2009
This is a fascinating subject in a well organized book, with large high quality photographs. A must buy...if you can find one under $1000! LOL
If you can only get one, I do think you should get Volume is a little better than Volume I.
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on April 22, 2016
The notion that there is a well-established style of Victorian photographs of dead people artfully arranged to look alive or sleeping seems to derive from this expensive book, but it has been extensively challenged on the internet. Check out [...]. There are no scholarly books or papers that support this claim.

Against the statement "OMG they took a dead kid and laid it to look like it was sleeping" must be placed the statements "They took a photo of a sleeping kid" and "The kid blinked when the flash went off" and "They took an artful photograph where the kid was asked to look like it was sleeping."
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