“Wait, you photograph funerals?”
Yes, absolutely I do.
While it may sound strange at first, the concept of funeral photography is nothing new.
Photography at funerals and memorials has been done since film was invented. Over the years, as the funeral and industry has become more of a business (vs. something families took care of on their own, in their homes) the practice has faded, but many cultures still do.
About 10 years ago, I attended a funeral of a client. As we all walked out of the church, guests grabbed a (eco-friendly) balloon the family prepared for a 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.
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.
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, beautiful floral arrangements, handwritten notes, and peaceful moments. I felt honored to document the celebration of the life of someone’s loved one.
One year later, on the anniversary of the death of her brother, the sister who had hired me emailed me to let me know that the album of the funeral is a prized possession in their family. That is a humbling thing to hear.
The key to photographing an event as emotionally charged 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 space.
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 their loved ones, 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 gone through this recently myself, I can describe it as a haze of grief. It’s hard to know when it will lift.
Having the imagery of a service is a way for loved ones 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 a way to share the day with those who could not be in attendance. Clients have told me that the photos I’ve taken help them to heal.
Funeral photography is not for every family or situation, but I believe for many, it can be a beautiful way of remembering and honoring someone who is very important to you. 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 and grieving.