The first time I was asked to photograph a funeral, I was confused. Why would someone want to photograph something like that? I just didn’t understand. I said no, and brushed it off.
A few years later I attended a funeral of a client, and I instinctively went to my bag to grab my camera… and it wasn’t there. I didn’t bring it. As we all walked out of the church, guests grabbed a balloon the family prepared for a balloon release. I ran to my car and rummaged through my camera bag to get a camera and lens. I only had a small backup camera, but it would have to do. I snapped a few photos of those white balloons in the air. I was so relieved I had a camera with me.
The family has that image framed and printed in their home now- a way to remember all those who came to say goodbye and celebrate their loved one. Each balloon in that photograph represents someone who cared about that person, and came to celebrate their life.
Months after that funeral, I couldn’t shake the thought of how important funerals are and that they deserve to be documented. Funerals honor and chronicle the life of someone that was loved. Funerals celebrate life. Family comes together. Friends reminisce. Many times there are tears, but there are also smiles and laughter. And funny stories. And love. So much love.
And so I decided next time I was asked to photograph a funeral, I would. The first time I was hired to photograph a funeral I was incredibly nervous, I wondered if people would feel like it was disrespectful or weird. Much to my relief, guests began coming up to me asking to have their photo taken with other guests. I documented hugs, tears, and peaceful moments. I felt honored to document the celebration of the life of someone’s loved one. One the one year anniversary of the death of her brother, the sister emailed me to let me know that the album of that funeral is a prized possession in their family. That is a humbling thing to hear.
Since that first funeral, I have documented several more. The key to photographing an event such as a funeral is to be sensitive and respectful of those in attendance. I take a lot less photos at a funeral than I do at other types of events. I am constantly scanning the room and area to make sure I am aware of every detail, to make sure everyone is comfortable and feels respected. I am as quiet as possible. I stay in the back of the room. I only photograph people who have made it clear to me that it’s OK. Many times the family who has hired me will let guests know I am going to be there. This also lets guests know I am here with them to celebrate the life of someone they loved. Many times (every time, actually) I shed a few tears, too. When you hear people speak so beautifully of their memories with heir loved one, it is hard not to be moved. I always leave knowing that my job was important.
People mourn in different ways, but almost all my clients have told me that the funeral and the days before (and after) are a whirlwind. Planning, out of town guests, casseroles, cards…. it can be overwhelming. Having the imagery from the funeral or service is a way for them to go back and see who was in attendance when they feel ready. To see all the love that was in the room. To remember the beautiful flowers. It is also a way to have photos with friends and family members who do not get to see one another very often. Clients have told me that photos taken at the funeral or memorial service are healing.
Funeral photography is not for every family or situation, but I believe for many, it can be a beautiful way of remembering and honoring a moment in time. Of all the types of work I engage in as a full time professional photographer, there is no greater honor than to serve a family in their time of need or grieving.