Thursday, February 24, 2011

Funeography: Funeral Photography by Priscilla Etienne

 When people lose all of their possessions in a fire or flood, it is said that what they end up missing most are their family photos – the records and reminders of precious memories. 
As an undertaker, I know that nearly every family I serve takes photos at funerals, sometimes of the deceased, sometimes at the graveside.  Often at the reception or lunch, I end up taking group photos so everyone can get in the picture.

A funeral is, among other things, an important gathering of family and friends unequalled by anything other than a wedding.  As weddings often include the work of professional photographers to catch all of the important moments, why not at funerals as well?

Often at funerals there is no one taking photos during the really moving moments of the procession, visitation, and candid photos of the emotions and interactions because the principals are all involved in these activities.
In this post, I am pleased to share the work of Priscilla Etienne, Photographer and  Managing Director of Funeography

Patrick McNally: Your work clearly shows just how valuable having funeral photos can be for a family.  If I were them, I certainly would be grateful to have these shots.  What brought you to funeral photography?

 Priscilla Etienne: My parents both died in1996 within 8 months of each other. At my mother’s funeral, when I realised the usual taking of pictures wasn’t going to happen I was very disappointed and knew this was something I would regret. It is common in the Caribbean and African culture. There was only one chance to capture some of the wonderful, heartfelt things that happened on the day and sadly it was lost forever.

PM: In your work, what have you found to be the best times and situations for photos?

PE: When people become focused and immersed in what’s going on and start to reveal their true emotions.

PM: At a wedding, many of the shots are staged, and when candid, the group usually expects to see the flashbulbs popping.  At a funeral, expectations may be different.  Is it difficult to get some of the shots you want without distracting from the proceedings? 

PE: No it isn’t because the success with beautifully captured shots lies behind the planning. I go to the church and the wake venues before the funeral therefore I am advised of the best places to work from which compliment my discretion. The funeography team works in exactly the same manner.

PM: I imagine that some of the photo opportunities are emotionally difficult ones.  How do you address this as a photographer and as a person?

PE: As a photographer I seize the moment, whatever the emotion, but I do it quickly and discreetly as possible. Most of the time people are unaware they have been captured. As a person, I go with my emotions because if I feel it, I can portray it.

PM: What are some of the ways people keep and display photos from funerals?  Is there a difference in the way they treat these images?

PE: The finished product is a hardback funeography book. When I am asked to photograph the deceased I give the option of giving the client one A4 image in a separate folder if they do not want it included in the book. Not only are the images protected better this way; they can be stored on a bookshelf. Easily accessible and practical, they also travel well if they are being sent abroad.

PM: What is the most valuable thing you have learned about life and death in your work?

PE: Make sure that when your life is ended you have had an impact on everyone who knew and cared about you. This reflects on how many come to say their final goodbyes.

PM: Do you think that art has an important role to play in dealing with death and moving forward after it? 

PE: Yes I do, art is a very powerful platform. Good art does not need an explanation; the work speaks for itself and allows the viewer to make many interpretations. To see extremely important, life-changing images can also be an invaluable tool to help with the grieving process.

PM: Thank you very much for sharing your work and your thoughts with us.

Priscilla Etienne
For more photos and information about Funeography, visit the web site and blog:
All photographs are used with permission, and are the copyrighted work of Priscilla Etienne and Funeography  

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Parting Gifts

I have a friend who has no interest in funerals. He'd been to his father's funeral, a dreary and depressing affair, and he had no interest in attending another, let alone having one himself. He didn't see the point. I was surprised then, one day, when we were talking about mementos that are sometimes given out to people attending funerals, that he got very excited. He wanted to give out 'party favors' to his friends when he died.
In the Victorian age and earlier, gifts were often given out to mourners (sometimes as an incentive for complete strangers to attend). Gloves, rings, veils and mourning cloaks were often given out, and have been stipulated in people's wills. (I take this information from Phillipe Aries fantastic book on the history of death The Hour of Our Death). While in the past, gifts may have been used to gain increased status by luring a greater number of public mourners, today, gifts are given to honor the memory, interests and personality of the deceased person. I have coordinated the distribution of many items at funerals and I think that 'party favors' can be a great way to personalize a service, and to remind us of the gift that that person was in our life.

Special foods are a popular choice. A man who met his friends at the bakery every morning made his family promise that there would be plenty of doughnuts available at his service (there were dozens and dozens.) Many people spoil their grandchildren with a certain candy and baskets of these candies are laid out at the service. I know that I always associate wintergreen lifesavers with my grandmother.

We did a service for a gentleman at the funeral home who always had a red bandanna in his pocket and always asked for one for Christmas. The bandannas were a running joke in the family and everyone got one at the service. Flower bulbs, golf tees, pine cones, fishing hooks and lures are other items I've seen given to mourners. Each is special and brings back the good memories that help to heal our grief. We take something along with us when we go, and it is a final gift from a dear friend or relative. I don't know what my friend is planning to give out at his service, but I'll be there to find out if I can- I'm sure it's something good.
Originally Published November 2008

Friday, February 11, 2011

Working Through Loss with Art: Kari Radl's Wisconsin Farmscapes

East on windmill

Mourning and issues of loss can begin for us even before our loved one has actually died.  We see the eventuality coming sooner rather than later, and can gradually lose the person we knew to infirmity or dementia.  These changes and losses are daunting issues to deal with on top of the caregiving demands and difficult decisions that often accompany the decline of a vibrant and independent person.

NW at 3496 Hwy 138

Just as art and ritual can help us to grapple with overwhelming issues in the wake of death, engaging in an artistic exploration during the times leading up to death can be meaningful and helpful too.  Currently on display at the Firefly Coffee House Gallery in Oregon, Wisconsin, is the moving work of artist, Kari Radl.  The daughter of woodworker and teacher, Skip Johnson, whose stories have been shared on this site in the past, Kari turned to an artistic exercise to help deal with her father's illness and death.

Outside Blanchardville

Here, from her artist statement, is the story behind these paintings:

In December of 2006, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer. This series of paintings began while we fought this enemy. After the craniotomy, while he healed, I painted. You can see my techniques slowly grow and mature throughout the series. He fought for 3 years.  Except for the singular painting of my parents resting place in North Carolina, all of the landscapes I painted are located here in beautiful Wisconsin. The direction I was facing, the name of the road and gps locations are in the title for those interested in a real journey through the true Wisconsin Farmscapes.

NW on Bellbrook

Skip and Joan 2010 Southfacing

W on Bellbrook

For more of this work, visit Ms. Radl's show, Wisconsin Farmscapes, A Retrospective; on view at The Firefly Coffee House Gallery, 114 North Main St., Oregon, WI through the end of February 2011.  

For More about Skip Johnson, visit:

Skip Johnson: Former Boy Wonder, and All Around Good Guy


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Save The Best For Last: Interview with Guillaume Kashima

 “We asked friends, musicians and other "music obsessed" ones to make a seven songs podcast as a soundtrack for their funeral."

Pat McNally: Your project, Save the Best for Last, features podcasts from an eclectic and creative group of people, with the brief of putting together a seven song podcast of music for their own funerals.  I’ll tell you right away that I wish I had more clients like your friends, as it’s not often that I get to play the music of the Baka Forest People of South Cameroon, The Mills Brothers ‘Smoke Rings’ or Bjork’s Aurora at a funeral.  This project is a wonderful way for us to experience new music, or familiar music in a new context, as well as for us to get a new perspective on what kind of expression can be meaningful at a funeral.  Please tell me how this project started and what your goals were in pursuing it. 
Guillaume Kashima: It started at my grandfather's funeral, few years ago. We were asked to choose a song. My mother and my uncle argued as she proposed a Nana Mouskouri song, my grandpa's favorite singer. He said it was not appropriate ...or something like that, I can't really remember. Then there was the ceremony with this cheap random song that they play when nobody can agree on one. It was a really sad moment. 
Nad Love Less' Podcast

1 . Slowdive : When The Sun Hits (1993)
2 . Suede : The Next Life (1993)
3 . Nick Drake : From The Morning (1972)
4 . Mazzy Star : Into Dust (1993)
5 . Johnny Cash : I See A Darkness (2000) ~ Will Oldham Cover (1999)
6 . Antony And The Johnsons : Hope There’s Someone (2005)
7 . Echo & The Bunnymen : The Killing Moon (All Night Version) (1984)

- - -
Photo by Nobuyoshi Araki “Kajou” (2000)

SBL Nad LOVELESS by savethebestforlast

PM: What are some of the songs you would have chosen to play at your own funeral?  Has your involvement in this project changed what you would choose?   
GK: I still don't know what I would play. I guess that's also why I ask people to do it ... So I can get inspired. I have started to work on it a thousand times.

PM: How did you go about selecting this diverse and creative group of collaborators to create these podcasts?

GK: I was in charge of the first 10 ones. I wasn't really sure about how it was going to be so I asked close friends, who are related to music or for whom music takes a big part of their life. There needs to be trust also, because it may sound weird to be asked a podcast for your own funeral. Some refused, but I would say, I'm really glad about the ones you can listen today. 
Henning Specht's Podcast

1 . Olivier Messiaen : Louange à l'immortalité de Jésus (1940)
2 . Nico : My Only Child (1970)
3 . The Mills Brothers : Smoke Rings (1932)
4 . Roy Orbison : Crying (1962)
5 . Elliott Smith : Everything Means Nothing To Me (2000)
6 . Henning Specht : Daddy's Gone (2008)
7 . J.S. Bach : Jesu Bleibet Meine Freude, by Dinu Lipatti (1950)

- - -
Photo by Valerie Belin “untitled” (2008)

PM: Based on your impression of the participants, have you been surprised by the contents any of the playlists?  Based on the podcasts, whose funeral would you make sure you attended?

Guillaume: I would say no. As I said, those are close friends and I really see them through their selection. Not that I would know all the songs they selected, but I was not surprised by the tone. Sad, melancolic, happy or at moments, even funny, it's often a good picture of everyone's personnality. As an "amateur" of music, I could notice that people from and after my generation listen to the same bands. Globalisation I guess. For the next ones, I wish I can ask older people, who got other references and backgrounds. You woud be a perfect collaborator, if you're up for it!
Jules Julien's Podcast

1 . Schubert : Ein Wolf Im Schafspelz, by Josephine Foster (2006)
2 . Piero Umiliani : Crepusculo sul mare (1969)
3 . Nico : Secret Side (1974)
4 . John Zorn : Invitation to a suicide (2002)
5 . Chopin : Valse, Op. 69, No. 2 en Si Mineur, by Alexandre Tharaud (2006)
6 . Ghedalia Tazartes : Tazartes Transport (1977)
7 . Chicks On Speed / Kreidler : Where The Wild Roses Grow (2001)

- - -
Photo by Guido Mocafico “Nature Morte à la Vanité” (2007)

SBL Jules JULIEN by savethebestforlast
PM: I would absolutely be up for it, Thank you!  What is next for you and for this project? 
GK: The next season is curated by Marie.  She chose the collaborators and the images that illustrate each podcast.  

Please visit Save The Best For Last for the full Season One Podcasts, and more information about the participants.  My thanks to Mr. Kashima for sharing this work on The Daily Undertaker. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Vaga Luma: A Memorial Website project by Hagar Ben-Yishay

There are many competing memorial websites vying for the attention of grieving families today.  Some are offered by funeral homes, some through arrangements with providers with ties to funeral homes, and others that are completely independent.  Many of these sites try to be everything to everyone, with the aim of becoming the market leader, the facebook of memorial sites.  Strangely enough, facebook itself has shown little interest in courting online memorial attention.

Indeed, for site to provide the searchability and availability that would allow friends and family to find the memorial without being specifically told where it is, or offer useful information about funeral service times, it would almost have to be the one site everyone visited.
Unfortuately, in the race to appeal to everyone, the design of these sites has become very generic, even while the unique stories of the deceased are emphasized.

Time will tell if one universal player can end up the clear favorite, but in the mean time, it is refreshing to see a design for a memorial site that embraces a more idiosyncratic, whimsical and personal vision.  I’m referring to the Vaga Luma memorial site project, the work of designer, Hagar Ben-Yishay.  This site would not be easy for everyone to use or understand.  It features a specific vision and metaphor that might not appeal to everyone, but this is what keeps it from looking like a generic corporate entity, and what makes it so appealing to me.

Ms. Ben-Yishay has gracefully agreed to share a conversation about her project with us.

Pat McNally:  What were your goals in creating this project?  What can we gain by having a site like this? 

Hagar Ben-Yishay:  Memory commemoration is the subject of expensive heart of every person who experienced the loss of a relative or a friend. 
We are all related, one way or another, to death. It follows the life of us all - and we all have to face it in the end. When deciding to preserve the history and legacy of a relative or a friend, different people have different needs. In the physical world there are many, varied options.
By utilizing the Internet's power at preserving data and providing a simple user-experience, this project tries to answer the human need to preserve the memories and essence of a person who is no longer alive.

PM: Did you draw inspiration from any other memorial or other sites, or work in other media in creating the functionality and feel of this site?

HBY: My inspiration for this project, both visual and theoretical, lies in the fact that nowadays, aside from his physical presence in the world, every person has an online presence in the virtual plane as well. While the presence in the physical world is temporary, the presence in the virtual plane is eternal and everlasting.  This gap inspired me create a place, supernatural and magical in his nature, that unites and combines the two - the familiar, mundane, substantial world,
and the yet to be fully explored, infinite virtual plane.  The encounter between the two is an organism like place, a living being that grows and thrives with each and every memory added to it.  During my research I found fascinating sites dealing with human memory, not necessarily in the context of death, such as:"Post A secret" project, in which the users can design and post their secrets, on line, over postcards...

What I love about this project is the fact that anyone can share his thoughts and feelings with the world, then people from all over the world  can read them and identify with the secret thought of a complete stranger... 

Other project that I love is " Petsematary". This project was created by "Noah" Association, which is a Society for Animal Rights...The project goes against the killing of animals by the fur trade and fur industry. The users are welcome to "adopt" an animal a light a memory candle for her.

The project was designed by the talented Ben Ben Horin, Which also instructed me during my work on Final Project.

It was important to me to create a place that is a transition between worlds, the world of the living and world of death. I wanted to create a neutral space, it can connect to different people, different cultures and different religions. A place where they will  feel comfortable sharing with others their personal memories.

PM: The site has the feel of another reality for us to wander through and reflect on our memories.  Would you consider adding other interactive places to post memories or other activities in this world?

HBY: In fact, when I've created the project, I decided to introduce a small and personal world. So the environments and actions that the site offers are currently limited. The project, as noted, was created during my studies at Shenkar Collage (final project) and therefore the time at my disposal was not enough to develop the site more than you can see. 
Of course, if I had the resources and time –I would happily return to the project, to delve deeper into it and improve the experience of wandering the world.

PM: What are your thoughts on the phenomena of Virtual funerals, held in virtual worlds.  Are they a means for us to come together in a new way, or another means for us to cocoon and disconnect with the real world?

HBY: I believe that since the Internet is a virtual space, accessible from almost anywhere at any time– such rituals as Virtual funerals are more than justified to me.  I do believe that Virtual funerals(or any form of on-line social activity) are a new form for people to come together in a new way, share stories and memories and assist each other in good times and bad...

PM: What role do you see for art in helping people deal with overwhelming issues like death and loss?

HBY: I personally believe that each of us has his own way of dealing with death or loss.
Art can be one way of coping and could provide a good therapy.  Whether its photography, drawing, writing or design, it can help in many ways in dealing with loss, death or difficult periods in life.

Eventually, everyone finds their own way to mourn and digest the loss of a loved one. People who find trouble in expressing their feelings verbally might find them easier to express in other forms – visual or otherwise.

PM: What is next for you as a designer?  What kinds of projects would you like to design?

HBY: Recently I've started working at "Nascent" studio, as a user experience designer.
I still have a lot to learn, considering I only recently graduated.
I would be happy to "step out" of the boundaries of the computer screen and start to design for different interfaces, such as the iPhone iPad and devices which offer a more human, direct interface.
Also, because I really love to learn I'm planning to study for an MA in design, probably abroad.  I would also be interested in learning more about the field of physical computing – which I find exciting and fascinating...

I would like to invite all the readers to come and say hello on my Facebook page, twitter or personal site.
Facebook: Hagar Ben Yishay (
My personal portfolio:

Designer Hagar Ben-Yishay

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Contact Me

My photo
Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.