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A snap decision

With younger generations growing up photographing almost every aspect of their lives, are selfies at funeral now OK? And should photos be as much a part of funerals today as of weddings?

We put changing attitudes into the viewfinder …

When David Cameron teamed up with Barack Obama and Danish politician Helle Thorning-Schmidt for a selfie at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the move provoked considerable controversy, with many accusing the trio of disrespecting the occasion. But it’s a charge that’s likely to be able to be levelled at many in the future, as the younger generation is used to visual documentation of every aspect of their lives.

The association between photography and the dead is on old one, with post-mortem photography a not uncommon practice in the late 19th century. That slowly changed however, and by the mid-20th Century, the dead body was largely hidden, both literally and in photographs.

Nowadays though, funerals are starting to reflect a cultural shift. Rather than being rituals that mourn the dead, they are moving more and more towards celebrating the life of the deceased and this is shown in the level of visual and digital involvement. Video streaming screens the funeral for remote friends and family, digital presentations – sometimes even prepared by the deceased themselves – feature at wakes and in online tributes, and mobile phone cameras capture proceedings and share group shots and smiling faces on social media sites.

These are part of an attempt to share the experience of grief and they highlight several reasons why photographs are likely to have more of a role at funerals in the future. And more professional photographers are adding funerals to their list of services.

Simon Redhead, who added funerals to his Worthing-based photography business’s repertoire five years ago, reckons photography can play an important part in the healing process: “Families have a variety of requests and want photographs for different reasons,” he says. “Sometimes it’s because they want to be able to share the occasion with family overseas who can’t attend but often it’s just to have a record of the day.”

This record can be helpful for the bereaved person or family because grief can make it difficult to absorb details. Looking back at a photo album after some time has passed can be intensely therapeutic. They see all the people who turned out to pay their respects, to recapture the emotion a loved one inspired and to remember the details of the day.

A trained bereavement counsellor, Simon says discretion, understanding and empathy are as important for the job as photography skills: “I always sit down with the family first to find out their wishes,” he explains. “But on the day, I try to stand back and be unobtrusive. I always use a long lens, for example.”

And, as a funeral is also the final marker of a person’s life, perhaps photographs are a fitting way to mark it. Many would say funerals are too important not to photograph.

Nowadays, with a wake often much more of a celebration of someone’s life than a mournful occasion, photographs seem even more apposite. A wake, like weddings and possibly christenings, is one of the few occasions nowadays when an extended family comes together. Capturing a pivotal family moment can help provide moments of love and support for those who are left behind.

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