Many years ago a friend’s husband tragically died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 45. I was a bit taken aback at the end of the funeral service when a professional photographer appeared, ushered us all outside, and took a group photograph. That had certainly never happened to me before. It felt rather strange – do you smile for the camera, or maintain a stoic expression of pain and suffering?
It seemed a very odd idea at the time, but reflecting on it afterwards I thought that we photograph weddings and christenings and birthdays, so why not photograph funerals too? Of course, they’re not particularly happy occasions, but they do mark a very important event. And when you’re in the throes of immediate grief and just trying to get through to the other side of the burial or cremation, you’re usually feeling quite numb and not taking much in. I know I barely noticed who was at my parents’ funeral and a photograph of everyone who attended would be something I’d like to have now.
More recently, my mother-in-law died after many years of living with advanced Alzheimer’s. I’d left my camera in the car for the cremation and service, because even though I usually take it everywhere, it seemed wrong and a little tasteless to take photos in these circumstances. It turned out, however, that everyone wanted a photograph of the flowers and I had to run back to the car and get it. Although I was able to take shots of the bouquet on its own after the service, they wanted one of the flowers sitting on the top of the coffin as well, which meant I had to hang around with the undertakers and pall bearers as it was unloaded from the hearse.
I felt really awkward; there I was, hovering in the middle of all these dark-suited men with solemn expressions, and feeling as if I was getting in the way and wanting to say: ‘hey, look, I was asked to do this – it wasn’t my idea!’ It was probably all in my head, but I imagined impatience and disapproval coming at me in spades as they were stopped in their tracks to allow me to do something so frivolous as take snaps. I snatched some shots and escaped as quickly as I could.
But I wonder – would you feel comfortable shooting a funeral? Do you think it’s in bad taste? And why don’t we photograph the unhappy times as well as the happy ones? – they’re just as much a part of life.