Funeral Photography - Testimony to a
By John Slaytor
A funeral can be so many things.
To a family it can be a farewell to a father or mother.
It can also be a time for a family to reunite, coming
together from all parts of Australia, or even the world.
Sisters in their seventies can catch up. Grandchildren
can play with their interstate cousins.
To friends, it is a time to remember and reminisce about
a person who enriched those he or she came into contact
with. School friends may not have bumped into each other
for decades until they meet again at the memorial
To colleagues, it is a reminder that there is more to
life than work. It is also a time to acknowledge how the
deceased helped them in their own careers.
In short, a funeral is a unique gathering of people from
all walks of life all drawn together by the memory (of
Given how significant funerals are, it is not surprising
that there is always a Remembrance Book for mourners to
sign. What is surprising is how few(funerals are
But what to photograph? Prior to the memorial service,
it can be a good opportunity to photograph people who
were significant to the individual such as social
groups. For example, the tennis club that played such an
important part of the individual's life will want to
acknowledge how important the deceased was (to them.
Work colleagues are also important since they will
reflect the esteem in which the person was held. And of
course, the family must be photographed.
During the service, the speakers and the congregation
can be photographed. In a church, it is essential that
the photographer is unobtrusive. This is possible if
they remain at the back and do not use flash
photography. Whilst church interiors tend to be dim,
with today's professional cameras, low light is no
longer a barrier to taking flash-free photos.
After the service, an image of the hearse can be very
Finally, the wake is a time to catch up and reminisce.
If possible, photos of the loved one and his or her
favourite possessions could be placed in the background
so that photos will be more meaningful. The wake can
also be a time (when heartfelt speeches are given. As in
the church, flash should be avoided to avoid distracting
Having photographed the key events surrounding the
funeral, you may also want to record special aspects of
the person's life. For example, a much loved garden
could be photographed or a collection of objets d'art
could be photographed before it is dismantled. The
person's home may evoke strong memories and a photograph
will bring back these memories in later years.
Once the photographs have been taken, what do you do
with them? Since the photos record a unique gathering of
people, the photos allow those who were unable to attend
the funeral to see it for themselves, to see what
happened and to see who was present. Therefore, the
photos should be on a website so that anyone with access
to the internet can look at them from anywhere in the
The photos can also be presented in small book so, for
example, the widow can carry it in her handbag to show
her friends, so the books can easily be posted and so
the photos can be shown to those without internet
access. A book also has the advantage of being able to
include wording such as the names of mourners, the
obituary and images of the person's life.
In summary, a funeral deserves to be recorded for
posterity since it is a unique gathering of friends,
family and colleagues. Sensitively photographed, the
funeral photos and book will take their place alongside
other precious family heirlooms.
John Slaytor's funeral photography maybe viewed at
About John Slaytor
I find it difficult to narrow my photographic interest.
This inattention to detail gives me plenty of subject
matter. My range of work includes Macedonian Weddings
and Christenings, Nigerian 21st Birthday parties,
Presbyterian and Catholic funerals, Indian and Greek
family portraits, Chinese and Ghanaian football
supporters, Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps and
Sydney Opera House.
I live and work in Sydney but can and do travel anywhere
for my vocation. I would like to think I have been
positively influenced by Werner Bischof for his quiet
humanistic vision, Jane Bown for her minimalist approach
to technology, Eve Arnold for her compassion and Peter
Dombrovskis for his pristine imagery. After visiting
Auschwitz I came across Michael Kenna whose work has
helped me understand how buildings can have mood.
(I avoid formality and artificial lighting believing
these things draw far too much attention to the process
of photographing people. I have no qualms about making
buildings endure long exposures with a tripod. I use
Nikon cameras and process my images (RAW only) using DXO.
I print with an Epson 4800. My computer is a Mac and my
screen is an Eizo.