New York State Funeral Directors Association

Years ago, photographer Duane Knight captured a host of images during his Uncle’s funeral and turned them into a book of memories for his aunt.

When she got it, she marveled at how many people attended the funeral and she praised him for capturing memories she wouldn’t otherwise have.

She was overwrought with emotion during the service and didn’t realize many who attended the service were even there – until she thumbed through the photo book’s pages.

That appreciation sparked Knight’s goal to refine his focus in photography and concentrate on memorializing the most-public part of the end-of-life: the funeral.

He’s now among a small group of photographers working to capture the love and emotion expressed at memorial services.

After photographing the funeral of a college classmate, Knight was heartened by that friend’s mother’s reaction to the book.

One of those attending the funeral was a cousin who died just a few weeks after that funeral. She told him that was the only photo she had of that cousin.

“I just stepped back. It was just worth it for that one picture,” said Knight, who’s spent much of his time capturing images for publications including Ebony, Gospel Today and The Positive Community.

Knight, who has been capturing images in Gospel music concerts, Sunday morning services and pastoral installations for years, is no stranger to churches and funerals.

Funeral photography, he said, requires a skill set mixing sensitivity, reverence and personality – and the skill to get into the right position without being noticed.

Flash can’t be used and you must be silent.

“You’ve got to be careful how you move and when you move. You’re moving and people don’t even see you. You’re standing there and you’re really invisible,” Knight said.

“You’ve got to know at what point to put the camera down.”

A family member could suddenly become hysterical – and that’s not the kind of image that would wind up in a book on a celebration of life.

“When it gets to a certain point, you back away, you put your camera down,” he said.

It can be a delicate situation when a cousin – unaware that a sister of the deceased hired a photographer – eyes the camera man with that `what are you doing here’ kind of look.

“You’ve got to introduce yourself to others so that people can see that the family knows you’re there and you’re there for the family. Once you establish that, a lot of the stares and discomfort goes away,” Knight said.

NEW AND OLD

Funeral and post-mortem photographs are is as old as photography itself.

There’s that photo of the slain Civil War soldier in a coffin used by a battlefield embalmer to demonstrate his abilities.

There are numerous black-and-white images of deceased youngsters – propped up and posed next to their siblings.

That 1800s practice was something only the wealthy could afford.

The practice today, it seems, is practically reserved for the rich and famous.Funeral Photographer Duane Knight

You’ll see images of those who are celebrated – like public officials, first-responders, members of the military and other officials.

The picture of John Kennedy Jr. saluting at his father’s funeral is still famous for capturing the sentiment of the loss of JFK.

The internet is rife with photographs of people like Nancy Reagan and George and Nancy Bush in front of President Ronald Reagan’s casket.

CNN and other news outlets emblazoned pictures of the widow of Army Sgt. LaDavid Johnson – one of several killed in an ambush in Niger – kissing her husband’s flag-draped casket in October 2017.

A touching image in July 2017 showed New York State Police officers saluting as pall bearers carried the casket of slain Trooper Joel Davis.

These photographs capture emotion, they capture the value people place on the lives of their sisters and brothers, they memorialize the impact that the deceased had on the living when they were alive.

“Most people understand it when it comes to somebody famous passing away. A soldier that died, a president or actor or artist. They understand all the people being there, they understand all the photographers being there,” Knight said.

The same isn’t true, it seems, for the “average Joe,” as if photographs at funerals are somehow disrespectful – as long as the funeral isn’t for someone who is rich, influential or famous.

Knight believes every family should have the same opportunity to capture scenes from a memorial service that’s just as important to them as the funeral of a public official is to the masses.

By 2017, Knight had canvassed dozens of funeral homes and found but a few of them willing to offer photography to families when they planned services.

Nevertheless, he’s pursuing his dream of capturing scenes that emerge when families and friends gather to honor someone.

It’s someone who may not be important to the New York Times and CNN – but who is important to their friends and family.

And though they aren’t as large as a State Funeral, they are engagements that people like funeral directors pour their hearts into to make sure they are meaningful and help families celebrate a life.

It’s not an easy task – photographers have feelings too.

But you have to choke them down, sometimes, to get the job done.

“You have to shut down your feelings a lot of times because you’ve got to get the shot,” Knight said.

Photographing a baby’s funeral, he said, was among the most difficult tasks he’s been engaged in.

“I really had some tears coming out of my eyes. That was hard, you’ve just got to push past it. You definitely go there with feelings.”

Emotion is one of the potential pitfalls, he said.

“You’ll find yourself just standing there, caught up in the moment.”

Knight is now directing his marketing efforts towards people, not funeral businesses – many of which aren’t in the position to add more services, and potential cost, to grieving families planning a funeral.

Knight captures hundreds of images and shares them with the family on a flash drive. They make decisions, then, on what they’d like to see in the book.

He’s started out with introductory rates, charging a $400 price for a photograph books of a funeral and viewing. It’s not even close to what a wedding photographer would charge.

Aside from the time at the funeral, post-production takes hours.

Families receive the flash drive with photos in roughly three or four weeks. Once pictures are chosen, the book takes roughly seven weeks for delivery.


 

EdsPhotoEdward Munger Jr.
Communications & Social Media Specialist
NYS Funeral Directors Association