Recuerdos de Patay : Memories of the Dead Captured on Photos

Jose Honorato Lozano – Entierro de un Parvulo; Biblioteca Nacional de España, Madrid, Spain; 19th century


 There is a feeling of eerie while looking over old photos of dead relatives and dead people. When there is grief and sadness over one dead relatives or love ones.

Before the advent of photography , Rich families would commission local painter to have their recently deceased relatives ( mostly infants, children before the age of reason around 7 years -old or younger ) painted all dressed -up with fineness and carrying important things like cross , flowers, toys or their favorite items. The dead were given lavish procession before they were buried in local cemeteries or churches.

Dead Child by Simon Flores- medium oil on canvas 1902- National Art Gallery 

One of the most famous local painter is Mr. Simon Flores y dela Rosa – He lived from 28 October 1839 – 12 March 1904 in San Fernando de Dilao ( Paco district ) in Manila.

He was one of the most celebrated Filipino painters in the last quarter of the 19th century.  , but went to live in Bacolor, Pampanga during the most prolific years of his career. He was influenced by his two uncles who were painters: Fabian Gonzales, who decorated the ceilings of Malacañang Palace and Pio de la Rosa, who was Flores’ first painting teacher.

National Museum :

Major General Henry Lawton funeral cortege procession near the Paco cemetery

Major General Henry Lawton was killed on December 19, 1899, in the Battle of San Mateo and temporarily interred at Paco Park before he was transferred to his final resting place in the United States. He was the highest ranking US military officer to be killed in the Philippine-American War (1899-1902).

Memorial services given much attention with such pomp and pageantry for the privilege rich and middle class that some westerners who visited the islands in the 18th , 19th and early 20th century had recorded these burial practices in the annals of their journals and publication.

But the tradition is not exclusive to rich and middle class families. There were also people who practice these even in the lower classes to a lesser extent.

This is an undated photo ( probably mid-1948 ) of my maternal grandfather in Fujian province , China . They visited a traditional turtle shaped graveyard .


With the invention of new medium ( Photography) it quickly spread across the world in the mid -19th century .

In the Philippines , There were some photography studios that opened its doors in the late 19th century in downtown Manila.  . Aside from baptisms, weddings, first communion , and portrait photos. There is also another form of bizarre art or keeping memento of someone’s recently deceased relatives or love ones.

an old family photo within Chinese cemetery in Manila – This might have been taken around 1957

old family photo taken around 1957- All Saints Day

Recuerdo de Patay ( literally called memories of the dead . It is also known as memorial portraiture,  memento mori, post-mortem photography, cadaver photo , dead people photos , mourning portraits, grieving family photography, fotografia de los muertos , cemetery photography) . It is the most visible reminder on how dearly loved these people and their relatives until their death .

funeral wake with paper house, lantern, mercedes benz , airplane , mahjong table and litter complete with people – These items are burn the moment after internment – to accompany the dead to their after life.

Several decades ago, Our Filipino-Chinese neighbor told us that some Chinese still follow  age -old custom of dressing-up their dead relatives into several layers of dress. Aside from a vest that is worn with some prayers . They even had to get the exact time of their death and even hire feng shui experts on what compatible colors the decease person shall wear. This can influence the fate of the next generation if improperly conducted. This is just a few of the so-called beliefs that is still being practice by the community.

These photographs served as keepsakes to remember the deceased. This was especially common with infants and young children; early childhood mortality rates were extremely high during pre-war days .

wealthy native funeral circa 1917 – Three elegant priests in stylist silk robes join the family beside an expensive , flower -draped coffin surrounded by glass funerary lamps

But some historians would say otherwise, The reason “why” there are a lot of infants and children photos commissioned during the pre-Vatican 2 days is that people believed that dressing the children would send them straight to heaven and they are pure without sins and are absolute from punishment.

The later invention of the carte de visite  or view postcard which allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative, meant that copies of the image could be mailed to relatives.

This is also quite popular in some parts of Europe, United States , Caribbean , Latin-American countries and even in the Philippines.

Although it seems to be a taboo to take photos of dead people ( except relatives). This is out of respect and courtesy at the present time. It seems to be the norm several decades or centuries ago.

dead relative from maternal grandmother side (possibly her sister or cousin )circa early 1940’s

 When i was cleaning and arranging photo albums several weeks ago, I was amaze with an old lady possibly in her late 50’s or 60’s dress in a period traje de mestiza traditional black- color with black veil and white cloth tied around her chin . There is a rosary in between her arms. There is also a black crucifix beside her and 2 white candles lighted on top.

She was laid on a bed with white cloth as bedding. She probably died on natural causes at home.  I tried to ask some members of my family on a more accurate details.  All they  can remember is that she can be a distant relative of my grandmother who died in the province.

Now , people can record funeral services of their decease relatives or love ones using a lot of modern equipment.

Bibliography and References:

  • Best , Jonathan – A Philippine Album: American Era Photographs 1900 -1930,  Bookmark , Inc. copyright 1998 page 117
  • Hau , Caroline S. (2015)  Recuerdos de Patay and Other Stories : UP Press
  • Ocampo, Ambeth R. (2008) “Recuerdos De Patay”. Rizal Without The Overcoat. Pasig City, Metro Manila: Anvil Publishing, Inc.
  • Wilcox, Marrion, Harper’s History of the War, Harper, New York and London, 1900. [Sometimes called Harper’s History of the War in the Philippines]
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