20-40-60 etiquette: Is family funeral photography a faux pas?
QUESTION: I recently learned my sister took a picture of our mother in her coffin. I learned this not from her but from my other sister who asked if I wanted to see it! I think this is a final invasion of one’s privacy and dignity.
What do you and your other columnists think? Maybe you could include a funeral director’s opinion, too.
What if she decided to publish it on social media? That would be terrible!
CALLIE’S ANSWER: I would first talk to her about not posting this on social media as it is between you and your family. My husband told me a few years ago that I still say, “everyone mourns differently,” and I think this is so right. Maybe your sister finds peace in having that photo on her phone and with her at all times. I’m sorry for your loss and hope you can talk to your sister.
LILLIE-BETH’S ANSWER: Everyone has a different — and personal — way of grieving and remembrance, and maybe this is your sister’s way. I hope she didn’t take a photo publicly during the funeral but during a private moment instead, and I would also hope she didn’t share this on social media without discussing it with all of you first.
I can see your point of view, but I also understand why she might want a photo to remember the last celebration of your mother’s life. There are funeral photographers who take photos like this professionally, so it’s not uncommon. In this age of social media, taking smiling selfies in a somber place is inappropriate, but taking a private photo of a loved one like your sister did is a different discussion.
Also, my answer would be different if she weren’t an immediate family member. For those with a more distant connection to the deceased, I would discourage taking such a photo at all; at least don’t take one without asking the immediate family first. And in asking, people run the risk of hurting them while they grieve.
I am sorry about the loss of your mother.
HELEN’S ANSWER: People grieve in different ways. Taking a photo of a deceased person would not occur to me, nor would my deceased relatives think that was a good idea. However, there are those who might want a final photo for comfort. It should be kept private.
GUEST’S ANSWER: Joe Kernke, Smith & Kernke funeral director: This is a little different perspective one of our funeral directors shared with me to send you. “Grief is a complex and unique experience for each individual, even within families. A funeral director’s role can never be to assign what is right or wrong in terms of one’s personal or religious beliefs. In the Victorian Era through the 1920s, portraits of the deceased were an accepted way of expressing grief and seen as a way to capture beauty in death. The ethical acceptability of post-mortem photography is in the eye of the beholder. Where one daughter believed taking a photograph of her mother was perfectly acceptable, the others found disrespectful and crude. I imagine the photographing daughter found her mother to look peaceful and beautiful and wanted to remember that image as opposed to the images of enduring a lengthy painful illness in life. Mourning takes many forms and transcends the realms of daily etiquette. I do believe it is a sacred personal time and should be treated with respect and reverence. Post-mortem pictures of the deceased should never be published in a public forum such as social media. The simplest ethical conclusion is the deceased was unable to agree or consent to their picture being taken. Within a family though, if one individual finds the picture comforting to have and the picture is then kept privately, it could be the beginning of healthy coping in the complex journey of grief and acceptance of death.”
As a follow up, I wanted to say, “thank you” for your reference regarding a comment concerning the family issue in dealing with photographic involvement at a funeral service. This is a family issue that I would not personally interject myself in. With that said, every person has their own way of grieving and handling death. The sister who is upset about her sibling taking the photograph has a given right to her opinion and this should certainly be respected and I hope would be possibly arbitrated by the third-party sibling, if necessary.
Callie Athey is 20-something, Lillie-Beth Brinkman is 40-plus, and social columnist Helen Ford Wallace is 60-plus. To ask an etiquette question, email firstname.lastname@example.org.