Cradle to Grave: Photos of the Dead, or Video for the Living?
Posted Apr 9, 2009

Several years ago I saw a fascinating program on PBS called Death in America. It was a historical look at death customs in America. What I found most fascinating about this program was a section dealing with post mortem photography-the practice of photographing a deceased person-which was popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Portrait photography was a rare privilege of the "rich and famous" and these memorial photographs were the last opportunity to capture a person's image. Surviving families were proud of these photos and often sent copies to friends and relatives. Photographs of the deceased were so important to the grieving and memorialization process that these "postmortem photos" make up the largest group of 19th century American genre photos.

Today, photographs also play an important part in funeral or memorial services. These are not photos that are taken of the deceased person, but photos taken throughout that person's life. These are often displayed on a large poster and are an important part of what is generally called a "celebration of life."

Photography of the dead and the modern photo board are simply an expression of one of our greatest human needs: the need to be remembered. Throughout history people have used available technology to let future generations know about their lives-whether through cave drawings, the written word, painting, or photography.

Today we have something more powerful than any communication technology in history: video. Video technology is still new enough, though, that we are only now beginning to understand its real power and potential.

One of the first applications of video was to record weddings. Photography was, and in some ways still is, the standard way to record the memories of that special day. But anyone who has been exposed to the power of quality video knows how superior it is to the greatest wedding photos.

Now you don't have just the image, you have the laughter, the personalities, the movement, the voices-a moment of time captured in such a way that future generations can vicariously enjoy the events of that special day. The wedding is just one of many events in which video can play an important part. We use video to capture birthdays, anniversaries, plays, sporting events, biographies, and even events in our own family.

Perhaps one of the last events (no pun intended) that we need to look at is funeral videography. Just as photographs met a need for decedents' survivors a century ago, we need to use the technology of video to remind loved ones of the life that was lived.

This can happen through the compelling use of photos in a video, and also by recording the service itself, especially if there is a time of sharing on the part of friends and family.

Recording the service allows children who are too young to understand what has happened to view the service with adult eyes later in life. Video also allows the life of the deceased to be shared with friends and family around the world. This can even take place instantly through streaming video on the internet.

Just as it has taken wedding video time to catch on and become a necessary part of that event, the same is true of funeral videography. Today, more than at any other time, people are seeing the value of funeral videography and making the most of what it offers them.

As we face challenges in our businesses because of the struggling economy, we need to take a fresh look at funeral videography as a new source of revenue. As my friend Kris Malandruccolo (of The Reel Deal fame) said in a recent email:

In today's economy more than ever, diversification of services is key to maintaining a steady income. We know that death and taxes are certain no matter what the economy is doing. Producing funeral videos is less about fancy editing and shooting than it is about capturing a person's life story in a timely manner.

Having previously videotaped memorial services, I know the importance of capturing the stories (audio) of the guests as they eulogize the deceased. This is one area where videographers can shine! People don't usually hire photographers for funerals, but hiring a videographer to capture the service and the stories and provide a photo montage is becoming more and more common as people want to find a way to remember their loved ones. Sadly, sometimes it's only in death that people come to realize the importance of capturing someone's life story.

I was once interviewed by a national newspaper and was asked, "Which do you prefer-wedding videography or funeral videography-and why?" I told the reporter. "I prefer funeral videography over wedding videography for one very simple reason. Both are a time of celebration. One focuses on a couple starting life together, and is a journey filled with questions and uncertainty. The other is a celebration of a journey that is completed and is filled with statements-statements that need to be preserved for the benefit of future generations."

Just as those who went before us saw the value of photographing the dead, we need to see the value of using video for the living.

Alan Naumann (alan at recently published an updated edition of The Complete Course on Funeral Videography, an expanded version of his popular Business Everlasting training DVD. A featured speaker at WEVA Expo 2004-8 and two-time EventDV 25 honoree, he is based in Minneapolis.