The importance of funeral photography
Funeral photographer Rachel Wallace, who appeared on BBC2's 'Dead Good Job' recently, talks about what inspired her to take up her work, and how it feels to occasionally be met with "shock and revulsion".
I was delighted when BBC2 approached me recently to appear in their programme about funerals, 'Dead Good Job', because I felt it was an opportunity to showcase to the public what I do and why. Simply telling people I take photographs at and of funerals isn’t enough: people are too quick to judge and make their own opinions and often think that all I will capture is sobbing relatives or people eating sandwiches and drinking tea in an elderly auntie's house.
Since the programme, I’ve had many queries and conversations about what I do, as well as people telling me it has changed their view of photography at funerals. And always the question: “What gave you the idea to take photographs at funerals?”
I first thought about funeral photography when a close friend died 11 years ago.
I stood there watching everyone in their smart, bright clothes (no one wanted to wear black – too dark, too final), taking in the beautiful flowers, the sentiments and eulogies expressed by friends and family, the glorious spring day with such vibrant colours reminding us of the life continuing outside the cemetery, and my friend's husband and sons in a dreamworld day, oblivious to what was going on around them.
And I thought how perhaps it would be good for them to be able to see the people who had turned out on that day, from near and far, to show their love and support and pay their last respects. How perhaps there would be small but important details they would have missed, such as people's accessories, special colours the deceased would have loved, the dressing of the church, the smiles on faces at some of the memories, the respect and reverence from the funeral directors, the special moments and the love reflected all around by the ceremony itself and those attending it.
I knew that taking photographs on such an occasion would mean breaking an enormous taboo, but I also knew in my heart it would be a great comfort to the bereaved to have these precious last moments recorded. I knew it would be worth doing.
And so it has proved. Those who have chosen to have my presence at their loved one's departure ceremony (and there are many reasons for their doing so) have been so delighted with the pictures I have chosen and placed in their memory book that they have hugged me and I have felt I have brought a little light into their dark times. The photographs will also enable them to talk more easily to others about their loss, as it is far simpler to start and continue a conversation around a book of photographs. In this way the taboo of talking about death can be broken down a little more.
It isn’t easy. At times I am met with shock and revulsion when I mention what I do, but once I have explained the caring and respectful way I work, and how my work aids bereaved people, I have seen people change their minds. Most people think it an excellent idea and a comment I often hear is that they wish there had been someone like me around for their husband, parent, child’s commemorative service but that they felt too embarrassed to ask, or uncertain who to ask, or wanted someone with experience and couldn’t easily find them.
After a BBC radio interview with Anne Diamond, several people called me to say how pleased they were to hear of the service I offer and I was immediately booked by a wonderful gentleman for his wife’s funeral.
It has been hard convincing those in the funeral industry of the demand for such a service, and I think it's sad there are still few out there who know it can be arranged, but I feel sure that before too long it will be commonplace on the list of requests offered when planning a funeral.
I feel proud and honoured to be present at such personal occasions and I know that the books I produce are of great comfort to people. And that, ultimately, is the service I am offering at a time of great need.