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Selfies at Funerals

I’m going to admit it: I’m totally fascinated by the on-going discussion of selfies at funerals kicked off by the Atlantic post this week, just in time for Day of the Dead.  It almost feels like they created this trend JUST to have Halloween/Day of the Dead programming.  I can just imagine writers covertly nudging teens in graveyards and whispering to them through their tears over their loved one’s coffin, “this would be an excellent time for a selfie, don’t you think?”

Not that I’m cynical in any way.


Image: Elvert Barnes via Flickr

The Atlantic article introduced the aptly named Tumblr site, Selfies at Funerals, which posts selfies taken on the way, at, or after funerals.  I’m sort of enthralled that there are enough people doing this to build a site around it.  I’ll admit that taking a selfie in general is the last thing on my mind, but especially at funerals.  I mean, in Judaism, we don’t even look in mirrors while we’re in mourning.  I can’t imagine thinking, “I would love to capture these swollen eyes and runny nose for the world to see.”  Though no one looks very tearful in any of the images on those sites.  I’ve personally never been to a funeral and not cried.  So I think I may be on a different playing field.

Which is why I was glad to see Jezebel tackle this topic with a defense of the funeral selfie.  Finally, someone was going to make sense of this for me.  And I’m not being sarcastic when I say that Jezebel gave me a very different way of viewing the act of self-documenting your life by snapping a photograph at a funeral (which, when you think about it, isn’t that far off from writing poetry or non-fiction or blog posts about funerals).

The Jezebel article points out that we as a culture created our disengagement from death and subsequent inability to deal with mortality.  The author asks,

Funeral homes come and immediately take our dead bodies away. Would these teenagers have the time to take a selfie in Japan, where after the cremation the family members gather around the bones and place them in the urn with chopsticks? Or in traditional Jewish culture, where the body is washed, purified with water, and dressed by men & women of the community? Or in Madagascar, where the whole family disinters the corpse, wraps the bones in new cloth, and dances with the bones to live music?

I don’t buy the whole argument since I have never prepared a body and yet understand the gravity of a funeral (and have since a young age).  But I do agree, as I said yesterday, that I think on a whole, the vast majority of the secular, Western world is so squeamish in discussing death that we sometimes can’t even tell strangers the truth about our lives lest we distress them.  We are disengaged; and cameras, computers, blogs, Twitter — they’re all ways of documenting, but they’re also ways of disengaging from the moment with the idea that you will revisit later.  I am a notorious documenter; taking photos everywhere I go and thinking up how I want to write about it as I live it.  Life is huge, messy, emotional, overwhelming.  Taking that step back helps keep the world in perspective.

Or they’re just self-absorbed jerks.

I also liked the New York Times piece on selfies a few days ago, which sums up the trend thusly:

Rather than dismissing the trend as a side effect of digital culture or a sad form of exhibitionism, maybe we’re better off seeing selfies for what they are at their best — a kind of visual diary, a way to mark our short existence and hold it up to others as proof that we were here. The rest, of course, is open to interpretation.

The rest, I’m assuming, is context.  Selfie on top of a mountain to mark that you got to the summit, okay.  Selfie at a funeral… maybe not so much.

Of course, for all we know, the deceased who are being buried in those photos could be HUGE selfie takers (as grandparents usually are these days) and love the thought of other people marking their passing in that manner.  Maybe they expressly asked their loved ones to take pictures of themselves at their funeral, and then don’t we all have egg on our face for judging another person’s dying wishes?

I am being only a little tongue-in-cheek because the conversation this week around selfies and funerals reminded me of Kathy’s post about live tweeting a funeral; something done with the widow’s permission and love, allowing people who lived far away to be there in spirit and know what was happening at the service.  Social media is in the delivery room, marking the moment of birth.  It seems fitting then on some end to have social media at the funeral, marking the death.

Though I sort of hope my loved ones leave technology at home for the shiva.  Just be present in the moment so you can appreciate the totally awesome soundtrack I put together to mark the occasion.

How would you feel if you saw someone taking selfies at a funeral?  Would you not care if people took selfies at your funeral or would you haunt them from beyond?

Happy Halloween, everyone.


1 Christa { 10.31.13 at 8:11 am }

My father just passed two months ago from a VERY short bout of lung cancer and trust me, there were no selfies at his funeral. We took pictures but mostly before the guests arrived and at the end of the service, after all his friends and loved ones left their own tokens around his urn to remember him by. But then again, I’m “old” at age 32 and I just don’t see the whole point of selfie pictures to begin with

2 Kasey { 10.31.13 at 10:00 am }

I saw these articles a few days ago, but just sat to read and process. My first reaction is – it’s fine because in a way it is no different than documenting any other event in life. It is I think partly that we do have this idea that funerals should be somber and partly that people only want to know about happy things and leave the baggage at home. But when I look at the pictures posted, of these teens in bathrooms, it makes sense that there is this detachment from death. I know adults who have never attended a funeral because their parents kept them home as children. I went to my great-grandmother’s funeral when I was 5, and have attended many since then. I have flowers from my grandfather’s funerals, I have the program booklets from several as well. I keep these mementos as a way to have a memory of these days. I don’t know that selfies are all that different. I don’t know that I would take a one at a funeral, but if that is the way you document and remember important life events, then by all means do so. In my family funerals are sad occasions, but they are also celebrations of a persons life and there is almost always laughter mixed in with the tears. We remember funny stories. We catch up with family and friends who have traveled to pay their respects. Funerals are just another life event and while yes, teens and children could maybe use a little more exposure to the ritual and it’s meaning, they have their own ways of remembering, sharing, and grieving. A selfie in the bathroom doesn’t mean they didn’t cry themselves to sleep the night before.

3 loribeth { 10.31.13 at 10:27 am }

AT the funeral? Definitely not. :p At a reception AFTER the funeral, maybe. Sometimes (often) weddings & funerals are the only times you get to see all the relatives & old friends, and take photos together.

After my grandfather’s funeral, we had a reception in the church basement, & after most of the people had left, we went back upstairs, into the gorgeous little church my grandparents attended, & took family group photos. And I took photos when we scattered my grandfather’s ashes at the farm where he had grown up, a few days later. I did ask if it was OK first. (I think my aunt took photos as well.) I have one of the extended family photos (with my grandparents, parents, sister, me, aunt & uncle & their family, as well as some of my mother’s cousins who were there) framed & on my desk in our house.

I sometimes wish we had taken family photos after Katie’s funeral. There’s so very little of her brief existence that’s documented.

4 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 10.31.13 at 10:33 am }

Sometimes I think these acts are just displacement activities, too. Stuff to do when you really don’t know what to do. If I saw someone taking a selfie at a funeral I’d probably just think they were at a bit of a loss. (Um, so to speak.) Having a solid ritual to follow certainly helps there – it’s not so much about knowing the gravity of the situation but about knowing how you’re supposed to respond to it.

I think we have got too squeamish about, basically, not being happy all the time. It makes me a bit uncomfortable.

5 loribeth { 10.31.13 at 10:38 am }

Good point, Kasey, about how so many people have never been to funerals. (Maybe they don’t know what kind of behaviour is considered appropriate?)

I actually commented before reading the Atlantic article. I loved this comment on the original article:

“For kids today, I suppose that the “selfie” is but another way to try to fight off the shock of the inexorable change that losing a loved one represents… That said, if one my grandchildren duckfaces at my funeral, I’m going to climb out of my casket and smack the bill right off of them…” 😉

6 deathstar { 10.31.13 at 12:20 pm }

I haven’t been to many funerals myself. Can’t say it would ever occur to me to take a selfie but I’m middle aged. My first thought was that it’s pretty hard for a teenager to really take death all that seriously unless it has a direct impact on them. My first response was that maybe it was a reminder to them that they were still there. Society as a whole doesn’t really acknowledge death or talk about it much. It’s basically this grim thing that devastates people and makes most of us feel awkward. About a hundred years ago didn’t we prop dead people up and take pictures of them? And now, we just close the lid or put make up on the dearly departed and sit through long, grim affairs. Mmm, maybe I should just request that a photo booth at my funeral, then maybe people would feel free to have a good time.

7 Davidah { 10.31.13 at 1:06 pm }

I was part of the Chevra Kadisha in the town where we used to live (helping prepare a body for burial in the traditional Jewish way). It definitely made death feel much more “part of life” and not hidden away. Leading to this poem, written by my daughter when she was 8. I didn’t let her read it at the class poetry reading day, but maybe I should have?

In the morning
I was practicing violin
My dad was making
me laugh
My mom was helping
get ready a body
for a funeral
the end.

8 Mrs T (missohkay) { 10.31.13 at 1:35 pm }

The first time I read that article with a grimace at the incongruity between a funeral and a selfie. The more I sat with the idea, the more I decided it was okay. Certainly some of them were plain tacky (maybe all of them) but I could envision a person who marked the event that way. Or didn’t know how else to communicate the loss. I used to think it was terribly inappropriate to share certain things on Facebook. The first time I saw someone post that his mom had died, I was feeling all Miss Manners about how he chose to share that fact (I don’t actually know how Miss Manners would feel about it, but I’m assuming she’d prefer a telephone call or a flowery letter). The longer social media is with us, the more natural that sort of sharing seems. Since then, I’ve posted my grandmother’s obituary and I post every year on October 15 about my pregnancy losses. It is far more realistic to share the bad with the good than the false lives that some people present on social media. So yeah. I guess I’m pro-funeral-selfie!

9 It Is What It Is { 10.31.13 at 4:14 pm }

I guess my thought is there is the taking of the selfie at a funeral, which is one thing, but then there is the public sharing of selfies taken at funerals. What is the purpose of that? Who is that for? What is the person trying to say about themselves? What is the intention?

10 Shelby { 11.01.13 at 12:27 am }

This is a thing? A real, honest-to-god thing? As if we didn’t have enough proof that our society is deteriorating. Well, this may be my general abhorrence for most things selfie talking, but I can assure you that I would be a-Rollin’ in that grave of mine if anyone so much as touches the camera app on their phone at my funeral. I agree that our society is squeamish about death, but as someone who has experienced a tremendous amount of it in my life, I am so comfortable with the topic it makes others uncomfortable. But does that mean its so second hand that people should be busting out selfies at a funeral? No m’am. In fact, there are few circumstances besides updating your 10-year-old profile pic that require a selfie, the least of which is a funeral.

11 Lori Lavender Luz { 11.01.13 at 11:22 am }

I try to be careful telling people how to mourn, how to process their grief.

There’s a post out there somewhere about rings of grieving. There are people near the center (the spouse, the children, the parents, the siblings) moving outward to close friends, then colleagues and other friends, then acquaintances. I think the closer you are to the center, to the person who died, the more liberty you have to do whatever the heck you want at their funeral.

People further outside should take their cue from those inward. The further out you are, the less you should make the event about you — like, for example, taking selfies. If you’re nearer the center, then the funeral IS ALREADY about you. If documenting will help you grieve (those sacred moments before the person is interred or inurned are perishable and you will never get them back) you get more leeway.

12 Cindyhuber { 11.02.13 at 11:38 am }

I just lost my mom three months ago and a picture of myself crying at her funeral…oh man, not for me. On the other hand…when the doctor told my mom and my family there was no hope, my sister-in-law insisted on taking a picture of my dad, brothers and me gathered around my mom…at the time I thought she had gone temporary insane, but now, 3 months later I’m glad to have a photo of my family…I tear up every time I see it, but in looking at it, I see how tired and worn out my poor mom was, and it makes the decision she agreed to (no dialysis) a little easier…but a picture of myself grieving…why would I want something like that around?

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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