What’s the worst thing you can do at a funeral? Dress inappropriately? Bring a snack or a date? Forget to silence your phone? OK, how about snapping a photo of yourself — a selfie — and posting it online?
Cue audible gasp. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of the #funeralselfie , this may come as a shock. But it’s becoming a common practice among the younger generation, and some professionals think it’s OK. Even a good thing.
The selfie is a way of saying, “I was there” — whether that’s in front of a bedroom mirror, at a concert or, more recently, at a funeral. Fast Company senior editor Jason Feifer knows a lot about funeral selfies; in late October he created a Tumblr dedicated to them. Selfies at Funerals is an online exhibit dedicated to self-portraits that have been taken at funerals and posted to Twitter. The idea originated while Feifer was on vacation in Europe and saw people snapping themselves at solemn locations like the Berlin Wall and the Anne Frank House.
Most of the Tumblr posts show young adults smiling, making faces or modeling their funeral attire with a short description of the event, such as, ”Love my hair today. Hate why I’m dressed up,” and hashtags like #rip, #iloveyou, #longday, #mom. The site saw immediate popularity — and although there were only two days of posts, Selfies at Funerals made both Tumblr’s and Buzzfeed’s Best of 2013 lists.
Pictures should be taken if it helps in your grieving process and if it feels like the right thing to do.
— Jamie Reed, funeral director
But Feifer didn’t create the site to make a comment. He approached it like an article he would write as a journalist. ”It’s more of a statement,” he says. “Hey, look what’s become commonplace!”
Not surprisingly, many see the funeral selfie as disrespectful and self-absorbed. Feifer received one menacing video of a man’s disapproval, which he posted to Tumblr. There are nay-sayers on Twitter too, with reactions like, “I have lost my hope in humanity.” Some think the practice trivializes such a somber event. A recent CNBC story takes aim at the funeral selife: ” We don’t even know how to be depressed anymore. There is tedium in every social medium to the point where even death becomes boring.”
But perhaps they’re missing the point. Sharing online what may seem to be frivolous details about day-to-day life goes deeper than it looks. For a generation that lives in the digital realm, tweeting and Instagramming is a vital form of communication and connection. And in this community of documentation and sharing, people also find support. Funeral selfies have become a form of grieving.
Just ask the new generation of funeral professionals.
Caitlin Doughty, a Los Angeles mortician and founder of the website Order of the Good Death , a collective dedicated to helping people accept death, cautions against judging people for how they grieve. ” There are many different ways that cultures deal with death, many different ways they express themselves through ritual actions. Teenagers taking selfies is a ritual action, just as valid as any other ritual action performed at the time of death.”
Jamie Reed, a 27-year-old funeral director and embalmer in Kansas, once disapproved of funeral selfies. But that opinion changed when she realized that she took her own funeral selfie a few years ago at a service for her grandmother. Feeling awkward before the funeral, she spent some time in the bathroom touching up her look — which included her grandmother’s lipstick. She photographed herself in the mirror and then took a few shots of the room where her grandmother’s body rested. She shared the selfie on her blog; the other photos she kept to herself because ” not everything needs to be shared with the world.” There are limits to respect.
There are other ground rules when it comes to public mourning on the Web. Photos should not infringe on people’s privacy (like capturing another griever or a dead body), nor should they serve as a grief avoidance tactic. If selfies ” are being used to distract [someone] from the actual interaction with death and real emotion, it may be a problem,” Doughty cautions.
Reed thinks families and friends of the deceased should feel comfortable documenting their experience, whatever form that takes. ”Pictures should be taken if it helps in your grieving process and if it feels like the right thing to do,” she says.
So before we write off the funeral selfie as a narcissistic, boundary-busting move of the millennial crowd, maybe we should ask ourselves what’s really going on. Is tweeting a self-portrait from a funeral simply the online evolution of bereavement? The 21st-century version of the grief support group.
Why you should care
Because taking self-portraits at funerals isn’t about narcissism. It’s about coping.