Interview with the world’s very first funeographer

Priscilla Etienne runs a London-based company called Funeography that takes professional photos at funerals.

“With a funeral you never know what’s going to happen,” says Priscilla Etienne, who runs a company that takes professional photos at funerals. “Someone might jump up and leap on the coffin. Emotions are real, they’re raw.”

She has been featured on the BBC and in Popular Photography. Digital Dying spoke with Priscilla about her beef with funeral directors, why weddings are boring and the reason she’s dying to photograph a gypsy funeral.

Most people aren’t accustomed to funeral photos, how do you persuade potential clients that it is a good idea?

People spend so much money on getting the coffin, or getting the brass band, what’s the point if you don’t remember it? Why not have a record of everything? I was at a funeral of a 12 year old boy, they had a Welsh quartet then sung football club songs. It was marvelous, but no one was taking pictures. When my parents died in 1996 no one took pictures. We all missed it. My mom’s death was expected, she had been sick for a year. But my dad died eight months later and it was unexpected. He was in the Caribbean. We weren’t told about the funeral until literally two days before. That kind of thing happens quite a lot and is another reason why it’s good to have the photos. The distance people sometimes have to go for funerals is tremendous. Not everyone can make it.

How do you go about photographing a funeral?

We wear black trousers and black T-shirts with the photographers name. We’ll go to the home beforehand and ask about the person. If, for example, I learn that the dog will be getting their possessions, then I know to make sure and get two to three pictures of the dog. We take pictures at the home, at the church and of the family arriving and the coffin being carried in. Coming from the East End there are a lot of old gangster types and sometimes they’ll ask about the camera, say something like, ‘Where’s that going love?’ We do a lot with zoom lenses. Inside the congregation everyone’s eyes are at the front but they are in their own thoughts. I have one photo of a white woman amongst a group of about 400 black people and she is just looking up with this expression like, ‘I wonder what’s for dinner?’

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What’s the business model for Funeography, and just who are your funeographers?

I run the business like a newspaper, it’s efficient and quick but we’re not as cutthroat. We have empathy, we have understanding. Many funeographers are students. They have to have certain techniques but they can experiment. There is room for artistry within the funeography books, which is the item the families receive at the end. We own the images, but if families tell us not to use the images then we don’t. It took me five years to build this from scratch and there’s still a bit more I need to learn. I’m still gaining people’s trust, that’s important. If people trust you it will come flowing in.

Were you always into both funerals and photography?

I grew up in East London. There were literally only 10 Caribbean families in the area. They do not see death as a bad thing, it’s joyous. They don’t expect you to cry because the dead are entering heaven. It’s a celebration, you should be happy, you are going to God. In Caribbean culture, someone will always have an ordinary small camera around. I was into photography from about age nine. My dad was an amateur photographer and built a dark room in our loft. My first funeral was at 17. And then people in my life just kept dying.

Why do you have such beef with funeral directors?  

I believe when funeral directors started to establish themselves in the 1800s and said, ‘let us take the burden from you, let us handle it,’ is when people became fearful of death, because they were no longer touching it. The funeral directors make death like a secret club. They feel no one else can do the job. When I approached funeral directors with my funeography idea they were like, ‘Oh yeah, fantastic idea.’ They just were not grasping it. Funeral directors have forgotten where they stand, and I think people are starting to get fed up with them. Families want to take control of their funerals again.

Do you see the funeral industry changing for the better?

People are becoming bolder, even in what they name their companies. A woman contacted me last year who has a company called when they croak dot com. People now want humor with death, they want to celebrate more. I am part of a group called Farewell Innovators. Two of our members are women up north who have a Volkswagen Beetle they use for coffins. We are looking to do our own website where people can find information on how to arrange certain things for a funeral that aren’t so common now, say a comedian. Also, things like cemetery open days are becoming more popular. People get to look at remains and see the crematorium. It takes the mystery out of it. When you’re buying a car you go and look at it and check the mileage and the price. Why not do that with cemeteries?

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Have you had success landing clients amongst other cultures?

I was recently at a funeral and there was a Chinese funeral going on across the way. They were standing at the grave with white bandannas on and doing this ritual dancing. It looked a bit like a tai chi class, it just looked fantastic. I had a small camera in my bag and I was thinking I want to go over there and take some pictures. But I didn’t. Some cultures will be slower in coming forward, I think. I am trying to get into the gypsy community. There is a massive one here and they know how to party and celebrate. There is a show now called My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. The main character is called Paddy Doherty. I bumped into him on the way back from Manchester. We spoke and I told him what I do. They’re talking about doing a My Big Fat Gypsy Funeral and I am trying to get on with that.

Why are funerals so much better than weddings?

Most weddings are the same. Everyone dances, the bride and groom probably do some dance they learned on YouTube and wow people. With a funeral you never know what’s going to happen. Someone might jump up and leap on the coffin. Emotions are real, they’re raw. Often you see men kissing each other, it’s one of the only times you see that. I have even had a couple arguments break out, not many, but you do find that some people might not like each other. It all comes out at a funeral, but usually they keep the bad stuff at the door.

Inquiring minds want to know, will you bring Funeography to America?

This is a perfect opportunity for a franchise, and I am kind of surprised funeral photography hasn’t come to the U.S. I would have expected it to be there in at least some states but it isn’t. I am particularly shocked that it is not in New York, that is one of those places that is supposed to be very on top of things.

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