The myth goes something like this:
Photographs were very expensive in Victorian times and the average person could not afford to have photos taken of their family members. However, when someone died, they would somehow scrape the money together in order to have a photo taken of the deceased for a memento mori. This photo would be cherished by the family for generations. As soon as a death occurred , the family would immediately summon the photographer who would then come to take a photo. Because they would want the deceased remembered as they looked before they died, the photographer would prop the corpse up with a posing stand and wires to make them look like they were alive and standing. The photographer would also paint the eyelids of the deceased to make them look like their eyes were open. And this is how a standing postmortem photo was done.
Myth Buster #1
Photographs were not actually that expensive in Victorian times and the average Victorian family could well afford them. Most large cities had resident photographers with studios and there were also traveling photographers who would make the rounds to smaller communities where they would set up and offer photographs for sale to people in the area. Victorians loved to dress up in all their finery and have their photos taken. They were fascinated with the process. Because of this, there are many more portrait photos made than postmortem photos. In fact, for every post mortem photo made, there were about 200 portraits taken. Photographers could not make a living only taking postmortem photos.
Myth Buster #2
Postmortem photos did exist, no one denies that, however, they were never taken in a standing pose using a stand. It was impossible to take a life like standing postmortem photo, especially using a posing stand. The posing stand could never support the weight of a corpse, even a child, and they were never made to hold a person's weight. A corpse in rigor mortis could not be posed and, a corpse not in rigor would be limp and heavy. The subject could not hold its own head and arms up, nor could it support it's own weight on its feet with the help of a stand. Posing stands were ONLY used to help a person keep still during long shutter exposures that could last up to a minute. Victorian postmortem photos were always taken in a reclining position, either leaning back in a seated position or lying flat. You may find some of children sitting in a parent's lap, but they are never photographed standing or sitting up straight on their own. (For some good information on how the posing stand was really used visit this website: http://www.artgallery.sa.gov.au/noye/Misc/Headrest.htm )
Here are some examples of actual Victorian postmortem photos:
Myth Buster #3
There is no way Victorian photographers could make a corpse look like a live person, especially a standing live person. We can't really even do a good job of that today. It was also not the photographer's practice to paint eyes on the eyelids of the dead. There are many cases where eyes were enhanced but it was by tinting the photo itself, not the subject's eyes. And making the eyes of a corpse look open, real and focused is also not possible. Below are the only photos we've been able to find of a dead person standing but you will notice that they LOOK dead, not life-like. The first photo is of an embalmed man taken from his coffin two years after death. The man in the second holds up a deceased woman and the man in the third photo needs three people to hold him upright. Note the pair of hands holding his head from behind.