It’s a common complaint of modern life that people are so busy photographing or otherwise documenting their lives online that they forget how to behave in the real world. But when it comes to death, we need to talk. It’s astonishing that anyone needs reminding of this, but this is the world we live in: Don’t use your smartphone at a funeral!
Consider Snapchat, one of the most popular apps used by millennials, that allows users to take a photo or video that then disappears after a set amount of time. The app also allows users to overlay Snapchat filters on the images they take. The filters allow for festive overlays such as “Congratulations!” or an image of mortarboard to use with pictures from weddings or graduations, for example. Lately, funerals have been added to the list of occasions for which people are creating these filters. Cnet wrote of the death of thirty-seven-year-old Tarrence, for example, whose funeral offered Snapchat filters such as “T’s World,” and “We love you, Tarrence, rest in Heaven.” His sister said she thought he would have liked the photographs taken at his funeral to have this customization.
That brings us to the question of what is actually being photographed at funerals—and why. In the early days of photography, during the Victorian era, “death photography” wasn’t uncommon. Families would prop up the bodies of deceased relatives (often children) before burial so that they could be included in one last family photo. The images were always formal and respectful, and in most cases the only picture a family had of the deceased.
Today, taking a picture is as easy as tapping your finger. Yet funerals are often a rare time when extended family gathers together; it’s natural that people might want to take photographs. But given the constant use of smartphones in everyday life, it’s worth restating some guidelines for their use at funerals: Even on the day of the service, photos are fair game, but not at the service and/or the burial. Also, don’t take a selfie or photo with the deceased at the hospital. Don’t do a face-swap with the deceased or put silly filters on their faces. Actually, don’t photograph the deceased at all. Are you wondering why I would share such obvious information? Because of people who actually do these things. Julianne Hough (actress, dancer, singer) recently found herself in hot water for posting a photo of her brother Derek (actor, dancer, whatever) at their grandfather’s open casket funeral, and that’s hardly an isolated incident.
Social media might have made us into unrepentant over-sharers, but funerals should remain private moments. You don’t need to share a selfie with your mom’s casket, or of a loved one’s will to announce that you’re the executor of the estate. Nobody wants to see your tacky social media posts (if they do, they’re not your friends). Funeral Selfies have become so common that there’s now a website, Selfies at Funerals, mocking the practice; the site’s last post, “Obama has taken a funeral selfie, so our work here is done,” is from Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Evidently that funeral selfie couldn’t be topped, so the creators of the site shut it down.
When you open the door to social media at funerals, things get weird. They definitely become disrespectful by shifting the focus from the deceased to pursuing social media approval for oneself. Instead of Snapchatting the funeral, why not simply spend time together with your family, remembering and honoring the person you lost and save photos for another time. Your flower crown and banal messages can wait until tomorrow.