The first time John Slaytor brought his camera to a funeral, it wasn’t his idea.
It was 2007, and the Australia-based photographer had previously shown a neighbour a published book of his photos from a trip to India; when that neighbour’s uncle died, he approached Slaytor, wanting his aunt to have a photographic keepsake of the funeral day.
Any trepidations Slaytor had about shooting photos in that situation vanished soon after he got behind the lens.
“I had made many assumptions, almost all of which were shattered,” he recalls, over the phone from his home in Sydney. “I was expecting the widow to be distraught, and to be supported by the mourners. And I actually found the opposite: she was energizing the mourners. That blew me away. I thought, ‘I don’t understand funerals at all.'”
Since then, Slaytor’s shot more than 50 funerals, billing himself professionally as the Funeral Photographer. He specializes on creating commemorative photobooks, giving the loved ones a permanent visual record of a day that, he notes, can be overwhelming in the moment that it’s happening.
“I think it’s a bit like your own wedding,” he offers. “You’re so caught up in it, you don’t really take anything in.”
Funeral photography is a concept that perhaps, at its edges, seems morbid. But there’s a lengthy history of post-mortem photography, dating back to the introduction of the daguerreotype in 1839. The photographic process proved relatively inexpensive—at least when compared to portrait painting—and that allowed the Victorian-era middle class to, for the first time, widely create visual records, including of death. It was an era where dying at home was fairly common, especially for children; taking a photo of the deceased might be a family’s only chance to create a visual record of them existing at all.
Post-mortem photography’s popularity faded as cameras became more commonplace, though it’s continued on in a niche ever since. And while Slaytor’s one of the most prevalent working today, there are a scatter of photographers who offer the service, including in Alberta. Christel Wakker’s Memoria Vitae company is relatively new—she only started offering funeral photography last year, alongside her other photographic endeavours—but she notes that interest has been growing as people learn about the idea.
“I’ve done five or six, right now,” she notes, adding that it’s increasingly becoming her focus. She’d been toying with the idea of funeral photography for a few years, but it became tangible when a friend’s son passed away and she was asked to photograph the service.
“I find it really comforting to be able to give them the opportunity to look back on those things, and to help with their grieving,” she says. “I’ve found [with] the people I talk to about it afterward, when they look back at the pictures, then memories come back: the things that happened, the people that were there, the emotions that were going on. I’ve found a lot of people like that to help them with their grieving.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Duane Knight, a Brooklyn-based funeral photographer who has photographed some 25 funerals over the past few years.
“I like to say I create images of healing,” he says. “That these pictures, viewed at another point in life, help family members heal. Help them to see that this wasn’t necessarily so much sorrow, even though they may have felt that at the time. They captured the legacy of that person, their loved one.”
All three photographers interviewed pointed out the need to be unobtrusive during the day of shooting; Slaytor notes he makes a point of being seen with the family, so guests know he’s present at their behest. All three offer commemorative books, and all three note that the service is widely used by those who have extended families that wouldn’t be able to make the trek to wherever the funeral service is happening.
In Knight’s work, the most push-back has encountered has come not from the families or guests, but from the funeral parlours.
“A lot of them don’t see the use of it, a lot of them don’t want to offer it,” he says. I think that’s the sad part; if family members knew that the service was available, I truly believe that more families would opt to take it.”
As is, it’s a small-but-seemingly dedicated community who focus their camera lenses on funerals; Knight and Slaytor are in contact with each other, and hope to make a connection with other funeral photographers to build more of a community.
Its importance, to Slaytor, comes back to something he found out on that first funeral: that the moments a camera lens can capture on such a day go far beyond bereavement.
“Everybody’s human on the day of a funeral,” he says. “No one is really there for show. They’re there because they genuinely care about either the person who died, or the people who are left behind. So they’re completely altruistic, and in that altruism, I think humans are at their most beautiful.”