Who are you, and why do you take photographs at funerals?

My name is Allison. I am a photographer, and I specialise in funeral photography. The reaction I get from people when I tell them this is often a surprised “Why“?!  I love photography; I do some commercial work and take family and portrait photographs (sometimes of quite well known people), but had reached a point at which I really wanted to do something more meaningful with it.

Funerals and memorial services are the final major event in a person’s ‘life’.  It is as important as any of the other milestones in life.  Our departure is every bit as important as our arrival; perhaps not for us, but for those around us.   We photograph christenings and weddings as times of celebration, as new phases, beginnings.  A funeral may mark the end of a life, but also marks the beginning of a new one for those that linger on, and more and more we are seeking to commemorate the life of the person we are bidding farewell to in a celebratory and positive manner.

I was browsing online one day and came across an audio clip from the BBC, accompanied by photographs of a funeral and a wake. The interview was with a lady who had stumbled into being a funeral photographer when she was asked to take pictures at the funeral of a friend’s mum. This was a lightbulb moment for me. I immersed myself in the the subject of bereavement, grief, farewells, and funeral choices, and discovered an emerging re-acceptance of the art of funeral photography, not just in the UK but all over the world. The way we conduct funerals generally is changing, with us having a greater understanding of the process of dying and grieving – thanks to the information we have at our fingertips via the internet.  We are given so many more choices around how we want to say farewell to our loved ones when their physical time with us comes to an end, and funeral concepts which may have been considered unconventional, or ‘not the done thing’ are now becoming more and more popular.  Who would have imagined thirty years ago that you could be taken to your funeral in a motorbike sidecar, or on a trailer behind a tractor, or that you might not even be buried in a traditional wooden coffin, or that your ashes would be fired into the night sky in a firework.

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I lost my dad six years ago, after a (with hindsight) mercifully short ‘battle’ with leukaemia.  I was REALLY dreading the day of his funeral.  Most of us don’t really go to that place in our imaginations while our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are still with us, so most of us are not well prepared for dealing with their passing, or with the funeral day itself.  My Dad’s funeral passed in a blur.  I think I shut down and was inside my own bubble for the duration, just to get through it without completely losing the plot.  I believe this is not uncommon.  I have vague recollections of the crematorium being quite nice and that the pews were beautifully carved with ivy leaves, or something like that.  I can’t remember what colour handkerchiefs the funeral directors had in their pockets, and I can’t even remember any of the floral tributes apart from the one that my mum, sister and myself had arranged for the top of his coffin – even that’s hazy.  I can’t remember what colour his coffin was, and, whilst I know that the crematorium was packed, I can count on two hands the faces that I can remember seeing.   Having now seen some beautiful pictures taken by funeral photographers,  I really wish I could look back on some photographs of the day, but there aren’t any.

So,  I asked people I know, friends and colleagues, who had recently lost close family members, how they felt about the idea of having somebody photograph the funeral.  Some were quite surprised by the question, but, after listening to my reasoning behind it, most were quite positive and felt it would be nice to have a memento from the day.  Then I spoke to someone who was really struggling to come to terms with her dad’s death, and had been living in denial for quite some time about it.  Her initial response to me was to wrinkle her nose up, and she seemed to find the idea a bit unpalatable, but after talking it through over a cup of tea she said “actually, I think it might have helped me to come to terms with what happened……to look at those photos would probably have helped my grieving process“.  It was my sister and it was that moment that affirmed my own belief that I just might make a positive difference to people’s lives here.

Funeral photography, memorial photography, remembrance photography, or however it is packaged, comes down to this for me:  It has to do some good for those who remain in life, it goes without saying that it has to be carried out thoughtfully, with compassion and respect, but above all else, it must come from the heart, and when it does, it can be a beautiful and touching way to remember this significant moment.