Memorial Service Photo/Videography
Preserving Your Tribute


Bil, how did you get into such a field of photography?

In 2008, I attended a funeral of a family member, and being a photographer, of course I had my camera with me.  When the procession arrived at the gravesite, I photographed the pallbearers carrying the casket.  

This was probably one of the few times that all of these young men -- brothers and cousins -- would ever be together, much less performing such a unified duty. 

When the thank you cards were sent out to each of these young men, a 5x7 photograph of them participating in this part of the funeral was enclosed.  All of them commented afterwards how moved they were by this gesture.   

Then what?

I actually didn't do anything in this field for half a year or so.  After soliciting the opinion of a local funeral director regarding offering such a service to the public, he encouraged me to do so, and invited me to display my information at his mortuary.  Directors at other local funeral homes, equally recognizing the value of my services, have also extended this courtesy.

How soon afterward did you get a call?

About a month later.   The death was unexpected, resulting in a range of emotions among the family members.  What I focused on was their tribute.  Prior to the service, I began with photographing close-ups of the flower arrangements, details such as the gift cards attached to the arrangements and displayed photographs that the family had brought in.  As with the memorial service itself, by the way, all photography was conducted without flash, using available light.

When folks began to arrive, I stood outside and snapped photos of various people making their way in.  This not only began with what I call the story of the tribute, but it gave me a chance to introduce myself, offer my condolences, and explain that the family had hired me to photograph the memorial service.

Following the service, the funeral procession was photographed, as was the grave site service, the balloon release, the pallbearers carrying the deceased to the grave site and the internment.

What about family members who are visibly upset?  Did you photograph them?

Absolutely not.  I capture the family's tribute, not breakdowns of emotion.  

What next?

The reception was at a large hall, and the family was rather extensive.  While lunch was served, I set up a studio for portraits, which I explained to everyone, was for "a visual tribute to those who have come to pay their respects."  This kept me busy for an hour and a half, and something magical happened during this time: smiles returned!

What do you charge for these portraits?

Nothing beyond my hourly rate.  All of the images went on the family's CD, along with a copyright release.

What other value do you see to your memorial service photography?

Beyond preserving the memories for those present, I've been asked to photograph funerals for family members who weren't able to attend.  Also, if the family desires, I can post the photo album and video in on-line galleries -- accessible through a code -- so the service can be shared with family and friends anywhere in the world. 

Which funerals would you say are the most difficult?

Any untimely death, of course.  I thought my first infant funeral would be especially tough; in a way, it was, because I know what it's like to lose a baby, as my 11-month-old brother died when I was seven.  But I found comfort during this funeral knowing that any additional children whom these parents may have will, through my memorial service photo and video record, also be able to make a connection with their older sibling and to have closure. 

Why do you think this type of photography isn't more common?

A local pastor explained to me that we're in a very "death-denying society."  In the old days, for example, elderly were taken care of by the family, up until death.  The funeral was often at the home, with burial out back.  Nowadays, with so many working so much, taking time to care for our elders isn't possible.  As a result, nursing homes have come into place.  Here virtual outsiders care for our elders throughout their last days.  When they die, more outsiders in the form of funeral directors take over.  As a result, death today has become a very hands-off experience in our society, yet it's the one event that brings families together at a short notice.

It continues to amaze me that when famous people die, practically anyone with a television is glued to the event, taking in every part of the service.  Not only that, but then millions of people go out to buy magazines so they may remember these people whom most have never even met.  Yet when our own family people pass, photographically preserving the funeral services doesn't come to mind.

Some have conveyed to me that this sort of photography is "creepy," or have simply shuddered at the very thought of it.  But can you imagine President Kennedy's funeral procession or Princess Diana's memorial service without photographic coverage?  If tributes such as that are worthy of remembering through pictures, why not the tributes of our own loved ones? 

Do you take pictures of the deceased?

If it's an open casket, yes, preferably before the family arrives.  These photos are included on the CD, but in a separate folder, so they're not the first images that open up.  I also focus in on any jewelry or mementos that the deceased may happen to be wearing or holding.  

What about video?  Do you offer that?

I definitely do.  Still photography simply cannot, of course, capture the many verbal tributes and even songs that folks offer during the memorial service.  I am able to conduct both video and still photography without interfering with the service.   

One very valuable contribution of video is the ability of webcasting, enabling family members and friends who are unable to attend to view the service live.  Additionally, if the family desires, the video is uploaded at no additional charge to an on-line gallery, and via a log-in code, may be viewed immediately by those unable to make it to the service.

Do you have anything else that you'd like to add?

This type of photography isn't for everyone.  Your heart has to be into it.  And beyond having a good command of photography, you must know people, and exercise constant respect and discretion.  Furthermore, you have to be willing to be on call, and understand that plans might have to be canceled if a request to photograph a memorial service comes up.

What keeps you going on this?

The value that my memorial service photography offers folks.  I've often said how when my grandpa died in 1991, and all of us had come together to pay our respects to this king of our maternal family, how I wish that a photographer had been available to capture this day, especially as "Gramps" was carried off to this final resting place, much less professional portraits of all of us.  But there's not so much as a snapshot from this day.  

Because of what I've done for other families so far, this void in their lives doesn't exist.  Additionally, I have had clients contact me afterwards to express how my memorial service photography has actually helped to bring their families together, even healing fractures that have existed for years. 

Thus, this is truly the most humbling type of photography I've ever had the honor to be asked to conduct:.

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