Picture this: The scene is Saratoga National Cemetery in upstate New York on a cold Saturday, roughly a week before Christmas. A heavy snow of large, fluffy flakes is falling silently on the windless morning, refreshing the blanket of white that fills in the ground between uniform rows of headstones. Somewhere in the distance, a winter bird sings, in stark contrast to the pavilion where two sailors in parade dress blues stand guard at either end of a flag-draped casket. The Chaplain has just finished his sermon, and aside from the occasional sniffle, the silence is oppressive. The sailor at the head of the casket gives a command to the other using only the motion of his eyes. Simultaneously, they snap from parade rest to attention, then turn to face the casket. Perfect mirrors of each other, they lift the flag from the coffin, present it to the crowd, and proceed to fold it, the soft jingle of the sailors' medals tolling like bells with each crisp movement in an otherwise serene moment. As the last bit of flag is tucked into itself, the lead sailor performs a quick visual inspection, unknown to all but a few in the crowd, to make certain that only the blue union is visible prior to rotating the flag to carry position. The sailor knows his physical location. He has already mapped his movements in his head. _Right face_. _Two steps forward, march._ _Right face._ _Four steps forward, march._ _Left face._ _Presentation._ _Kneel._ He begins his march, fighting with every ounce of willpower he has to maintain his military bearing. He forces his mind to concentrate on the crispness of his movements. He forces himself to maintain a stolid air. Left face. He thinks to himself how fortunate it is that he is taller than the next of kin. _This one, is not like the others._ _This one is not a retired sailor or marine at the end of a long and happy life._ He rotates the flag to presentation position, then drops to one knee, extending the flag as he repeats his well-rehearsed line. "On behalf of the President of the United States, a proud nation, and a grateful navy, this ensign is presented as a token of our appreciation of the honorable and faithful service of your mother to her country and navy." He can hear her crying, but he cannot look, for he knows looking would rob him of his strength and spoil his bearing. He fights back a tear of his own as he momentarily allows his thoughts to stray just take the damn flag. He hears an older woman, perhaps an aunt or trusted friend, whisper, "take it, deary." Reluctantly, an eight-year old girl reaches out and softly pulls the flag from the sailors hands. He rises to attention and salutes the girl. He knows he is required to look her in the eyes, but still, he cannot. He stares blankly at a spot on the far side of the pavilion, maintaining his salute while awaiting the sharp piercing sounds of the rifle salute. This little girl is different. This is not an elderly widow, this is not a proud son or grandchild with children of his own. This is a little girl, who will never truly understand why her mother came home from some faraway land, worlds away from dream-like serenity of snow falling on towering white pines and junipers. The girl, with a single look, will remind the sailor what no warrior wants to be reminded of. That we are temporary, that at any moment, our flame may extinguish without our say. And that the next funeral may be one of his own friends or shipmates.
That was the last funeral I ever performed as honor guard. I was the sailor presenting the ensign, and despite being several years later, that is a day that I will never forget. A recent turn of events has made me think more about that day in the last few weeks. My grandmother reached the end of her days and slowly succumbed to the failing of her physical body. Her funeral won't be until spring because of the nature of the difficult nature of winter travel where she lived. Part of me wishes it would be sooner, rather than later to get it over and done with. Part of me is glad to have time to prepare for it mentally. As currently stands, honor guard duties aside, I've been to more funerals in my life than weddings, milestone birthdays, or any other facet of human celebration. The first funeral I'd attended was that of a grade school friend who was lost to a brain tumor.
At this point, I've come to embrace the funeral as a means to truly celebrate a persons life, to congregate with family and tell stories of the deceased, treating them more like the guest of honor at a grand celebration. Based on that, I've been thinking. Why don't we treat it fully as a celebration? And here's where I think I'm becoming divergent from a majority of society. The photographer in me wonders "Why isn't funeral photography a thing?" My human side knows that it's a rough time, emotionally and mentally for relatives and friends of the deceased, and intrusions may be unwelcome, but I can't help but think that a few photos of our most intimate moments of closure may actually be incredibly helpful in the long-term healing process. Personally, I'd love to have photos to reflect on from some of the funerals I've attended.
That's where my photographers instincts kick in. I know that some powerful images could have been taken at the last military funeral I'd performed. Everything was perfect for photography, except for a distinct lack of cameras. I've been to funerals before with photographers - Two of my shipmates were killed in an accident off the coast of England while leaving port in 2006. We had a service for them at the Chapel in Rota, Spain, as soon as we were able to pull in, and both official navy photographers as well as press photographers from The Navy Times were present. They all maintained a respectful demeanor, and went largely unnoticed.
So my questions to friends, fellow photographers, and in general, are as follows:
1) What are your opinions of funeral photography?
2) If you were immediate family, would you feel different that if you were a distant friend?
3) What if you were the deceased and it was your funeral?
4) Could you see yourself shooting a funeral if asked?