Scenes from a loved one’s final days can be moving and meaningful. Several professional photographers have been expanding their portfolios of weddings, graduations, and other larger family events to include end-of-life photography for terminal patients. One example is Shannon MacFarlane of Tacoma, Washington, who has worked exclusively as a “bereavement photographer” since 2013.
MacFarlane uses the photos she takes of patients and their families as tools to help them during their grief. She also brings a recorder with her and invites the family to share memories while she takes photos while she’s recording the stories, memories, and end-of-life wisdom, which she then puts together in a book to give to the family.
“This is a time when you can see the anguish and heartache, those painful emotions, that come from a place of love,” she said. “You can see the life and relationships they’ve shared. There are moments of pure radiance. We’re seeing a change in how we perceive the end of life,” she said. “This dignity of dying mindset is coming forward, with the idea that last moments can be gentle and serene, not painful or haunting.”
This isn’t the post-mortem photography of the Victorian era. The photos taken of the deceased in Victorian England was meant to be a way to commemorate the individual and help ease the grief in their passing. The daguerreotype was the first successful form of photography and was very expensive though not as expensive as having a portrait taken to commemorate someone. As the numbers of photographer’s increased in the mid-1800’s, the cost of photos became more affordable, and death portraiture became more popular.
The state of healthcare in the nineteenth century led to many deaths from diseases that are preventable today or have been cured. With so many children dying from infant diseases, this may have been the last chance for these families to have a permanent likeness of their child and family as a whole.
Memento mori photography was something practiced all over the world and not just Victorian England. Photographs can even be found from Australia. Improved health expectancy for children proved to the end of death photography as a common practice and has since been relegated as a lost art. Fast forward to the twenty-first century and we are now seeing a growing number of hospice photos as a part in documenting the end of a person’s life.
Attention to end-of-life care for hospice patients and their families is gaining and widening its scope. Amanda Reseburg, a professional photographer working in Beloit, Wisconsin is one such photographer. Reseburg who specialized in weddings and high school senior portraits is now adding photos of mostly infirm and elderly.
“I know some people think taking hospice pictures is morbid, but the dying process is a part of life that deserves to be seen and celebrated,” Reseburg said, in an article for NextAvenue.
She began volunteering her photography skills to hospice patients when she realized that when her grandmother passed away, she didn’t have any photos of her then and realized what a special moment that would have been and continued to do so for the past 8 years.
Several professional photographers around the country have expanded their businesses to include end-of-life sessions with terminal patients, including parents suffering the loss of a baby. Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep is one such organization that creates remembrance photography to parents dealing with the death of an infant.
If you’re thinking that you would like some photos of a loved one as a keepsake, here are a few tips to photographing what can be a very emotional process:
- Respect the patient’s wishes. Before bringing a camera, ask the patient if he or she wants to be photographed.
- Get everyone on board. If there is even one member of the family not in agreement, that should be respected and the photos not taken.
- Set the stage. Open doors and windows to take advantage of natural lighting and even play some favorite music to create a soothing atmosphere.
- Consider black and white photos and look for close-ups of hands.
- Include meaningful elements of your loved one’s life.
- Respect emotions and set boundaries.
This type of photography is more than memories – it can also help with grief and acceptance by being able to step back as you take the pictures and see your loved one in a different way. The process of taking pictures may prove to be therapeutic for the photographer as well as therapeutic for the families that receive the images.
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