Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Pictures at Funerals

My mother recently sent me pictures from my Uncle Nick's funeral and I'm about to post them here. Before I do, I think it's important to discuss some cultural differences as well as the moral implications of doing this.

Here in the United States, and I assume among most cultures, it's uncommon and, at the very least, frowned upon to take pictures at a funeral. To some it's downright appalling. However, this isn't the case in Thailand. Although photography isn't encouraged, it's not discouraged either. People take pictures at funerals much like they take pictures at any other time of ceremony without any peculiarity.

There are a number of reasons why I'm sharing these photographs with you. Part of it is because I want you to know that not every culture finds taking pictures at funerals distasteful. Another is because I want to share with you Thai traditions for funeral ceremonies. The most important and personal of reasons, I have yet to find a way to articulate.

Most Thai funeral rites range from 7 days to 1 month or 100 days depending the person's status in society. Uncle Nick's funeral was 100 days long, traditional for persons of his prominence. He was, among other things, a Lt. Gen. in the Royal Thai Army. To me, he was just Uncle Nick.

The following picture is of his family and friends paying respect to him before he was placed in his coffin.

As with certain people of prominence, his body is not placed lying down in a casket, but placed in a sitting position within the coffin. It's customary for family and friends to pose for pictures with the coffin. Yhe golden object in the center, behind the group is my uncle's coffin.

Adults mostly dress in black clothing, but it's also acceptable to wear a white top with a black skirt or pants. Children are almost always dressed in white.

Thai funerals aren't usually a sad event. I'm really not sure why that is. In my experience, funerals are very similar to a social event. Most Thais, theravada buddhist in particular, cremate the remains of their loved ones. Merit is made for the deceased in the days leading up to the cremation in order to help them out in their next life.

It wasn't until recently that I gave much thought to the topic of taking pictures at funerals. up until a few years ago most of the funerals I had attended were in Thailand. I was accustom to photographs being freely taken and didn't give it much thought. When Randy's father passed away it didn't occur to me to take pictures. Maybe I took a few, but I don't really remember.

Most of you who know me know that I almost always have a camera with me and I take pictures of just about anything and everything. When it came time for my aunt's wake I wanted to take pictures. it was just my way of remembering. That's when it occurred to me that no one was taking pictures, that people here don't really take pictures during funerals. I brought my camera to the funeral hoping to be able to take pictures, but never really felt comfortable doing it even though someone else was taking pictures now.

After the funeral ceremony, my aunt's casket was brought outside and the pallbearers took their place. I began to take photos. The truth is, I don't know how or why I did it. I wasn't actually conscious of doing it until later. Maybe it was a reflexive response to the photo journalistic training I have. Maybe it was an unconscious reaction to the emotions I was feeling and I was using the camera as a way of distancing myself from what was happening. Maybe it was a coping mechanism. Maybe I was just accustomed to it being normal. It was probably all of the above.

My aunt's daughter broke down sobbing as the casket was being placed onto the hearse. I heard it and turned. I can still hear her. I took the picture as she stooped over crying. It was after I pressed that shutter that I realized what I was doing, that I had been standing there just taking pictures in her moment of sorrow rather than run over and comfort her. I felt horrible, like I had failed as a human being. I was a monster who cared more about capturing that "decisive moment" rather than the moment of compassion. I started to run to her to comfort her, but her husband had come to comfort her, then her son, and then her daughter. I picked up my camera again and shot. What the hell was I doing? I dropped the camera again.

Here now, I show the pictures I took that day for the first time. I contemplated doing it back then, but didn't feel right. Perhaps the wounds were still too fresh. Now I look at the pictures and what I see isn't sad or morbid. The image of my aunt's son's and nephews carrying her casket is a moment where they are honoring her. The photo of her daughter being comforted by her family is a portrait of love and family standing by each other. I know some of you might not see it that way, but I hope you see past the sadness of the event and look for what is beautiful about the moment.

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