The idea of photographing a funeral may at first appear to be somewhat unconventional. After all, grief does not make a pretty picture and why would anyone want to record such an unhappy event anyway? Well, the reason I was asked to cover a funeral recently was because the deceased had close family in Australia and New Zealand and were unable to attend the event. I was approached to provide a photographic record of the day and provide an online slideshow of proceedings so that those who were unable to pay their respects in person could get an idea of how the day went.
One of the first things to establish from the client is exactly what they want, and just as important, what they don’t want from the coverage. For this particular assignment I was given a pretty free range, with the obvious commitment not to intrude on grief or picture sobbing friends and relatives. It is also very important to be as discreet as possible.
As with many such assignments, where you’re providing a photographic documentary of the day, planning is key. Before the event I visited all the locations and met some of the key players, such as undertakers, priests and gravediggers. My plan was to cover the day from the moment the hearse left the undertakers through to the wake following the burial. I visited the funeral director to make them aware of my engagement and to discuss timings. I also visited the church to meet the priest and to get an idea of the layout of the church so that I could establish the best positions from which to take photos so as to get the best angle and make the most efficient use of light. It also helps to think about how and when you are going to move about the church quietly and discreetly during the service without becoming a distraction. I then visited the graveyard to view the location for the burial and introduce myself. Obviously the sight of someone with a long lens photographing a burial is going to arouse suspicions so it’s important that key people are forewarned as to what’s happening.
On the day it’s important to dress respectfully and to be ahead of the game. I arrived at the undertakers shortly before the hearse was due to leave and photographed the departure to the deceased’s home, where close family were waiting for the cortege. I was lucky in that all the principal locations were within the town, which meant that using a bicycle and alternative routes I was able to cover the cortege both leaving and arriving.
At the church I photographed the priest welcoming the mourners and eventually the cortege, before the coffin entered the church and the service began. I covered both general views of the church as well as shots if the priest conducting the service and individual readings. One of the considerations in photographing a church service is the noise made by the camera’s shutter. Thankfully my Nikon has a quiet setting, but nevertheless you have to time shots carefully. Obviously you can worry less about this whilst hymns are being sung, but overall it’s important to be very aware that noise and movement can intrude and therefore you have to be very thoughtful about how you operate.
From the church, it’s on to the final resting place, again arriving before the mourners. Here it’s easier to maintain a respectful distance and photograph from afar. I try not to focus on individuals, instead referring to cover the mourners as a group. The one exception I might make is for the priest, but in general it’s not a good idea to pick out individuals at the graveside.
And finally, on to the wake, where the mood is lighter. Here, it’s about documenting the general view and social interaction between friends and family. These are informal shots, taken in a reportage style to reflect the mood of the occasion.
At the end of the day I hope I’ve provided a record of a solemn occasion without too much sadness – a series of images that respectfully show the final journey of a loved one and a fond farewell from family, friends and colleagues.
If you’re interested in having a photographic record of a funeral, cremation or similar final journey in Hertfordshire or Essex then please feel free to contact me.