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  • Katie Hetherington

Guest blog: Mourning and funeral selfies

Modern Day Mourning

What is mourning? Is it sadness, loss of appetite, inability to cope or the process of shutting your emotions off? In definition, mourning is the expression of sorrow for someone’s death. It has one definition yet it’s expressed in so many different mannerisms. Each person is affected by death in their own way. Factors like relationship to the deceased, how the person died or what beliefs you have all directly affect the mourning process. It may have a definition but grieving cannot be defined for each individual person. Like anything mourning throughout the years has modernized. Traditions in the Victorian era have expired and the 21st century way of mourning is how we have turned to grieve. The Digital Age has dawned and millennials in particular are taking to expressing their loss, their emotions and their mourning via social media. Teaming up with Damsons Future Planning, we launched an investigation on how much has funerals changed in the past century.

Mourning in Old England

Travelling back just one century shows how much views on death have changed, the Victorian age viewed death on an entirely different spectrum. Back then death had its rules and regulations. There were even household manuals that were referred to when someone died. It specified what a person should wear, what they could or couldn’t do during the mourning period and how long a person should mourn for various people in the family. The Queen and Cassell’s was a hugely popular death manual that housewives consulted and followed to the latter or face public shaming. In a detailed chapter the directions for death is clearly stipulated. Sitting in your pjs on the couch or staying in bed under the protection of your duvet wasn’t even a thing.

Back in the Victorian era the after death process began with the blinds in the front window being drawn in order to signal death to others. Mourning clothes were expected to be worn, usually a basic black dress or suit, colours weren’t permitted, lavish jewellery wasn’t allowed, even the size of hats were determined by how close you were to the deceased. Funerals were extravagant, huge monumental headstones were the norm despite the high costs which were £7-£22. Seemingly not a lot in our time however £22 in today’s money is around £4,500. This whopping figure doesn’t even incur the costs of the rest of the funeral necessities. Another important formality is the clothing which formed a huge statement. Women in particular had to follow strict rules when it came to funeral clothing. If a woman’s husband died they were expected to wear all black for at least one year and then they could enter half mourning, the full mourning period typically lasted 18 months to two years. After this period they could start wearing colours and jewellery again.

Whilst in mourning, women weren’t permitted to attend balls or parties and they couldn’t have male guests or to be seen with men. They had to curtail their social behaviour in respect to their husbands. Men on the other hand wore their standard black suit for a shorter period if their wife had passed away. Shockingly women weren’t allowed to attend funerals, they were deemed as emotionally unstable and too hysterical, usually they stayed at home until the affair was over. Attitudes towards funerals began to change following WWI. The death toll was high, there was rationing on clothing and time and money was in short supply. The mourning period was shortened as the war took precedence. From there in funeral traditions began to transform with personal touches, lesser grandeur and mourning becoming personal to each individual person.

Death in the Digital Age

Jumping back to 2016 we have a whole other perspective on death, dying and grieving. A survey by the National Association of Funeral Directors found that 56% of people want a celebratory funeral with a further 43% stating they want a personalised funeral. It’s not just the mentality surrounding deaths it’s also the funeral changes. Two big funeral traditions are becoming less popular, 1 in 5 people don’t want a hearse and only 7% would want people to wear black. A tradition that dates back to the 13th century, that’s over 900 years!

The digital age has also spurred the change of the typical funeral progression. Digital death is growing in popularity as more people inevitably want to express their sympathies, funeral services and to convey their emotions. Social media in particular has been highly influential, 13% of 18-24 year olds would consider sharing their final moments and a further 4% of Brits said they would consider live streaming their funeral. Even after death people are requesting that their social media accounts remain active. Surprisingly 10% of Brits would like someone to keep posting on their behalf and 9% would still want their family and friends to continue to wish them happy birthday. Death announcements are also going digital with 20% of Brits wanting their death broadcasted on social media. While condolences to loved ones of the deceased have gone viral 22% of Brits are ditching the traditional condolence card in favour of a social media post.

Yet it doesn’t just stop there, selfies have now evolved into a ‘thing’ with people snapping photos whilst attending a funeral. There is mixed feelings towards the funeral selfie, it has been deemed disrespectful, shameful and rude. The Huffington Post entitled an article “Funeral Selfies are the Latest Evidence Apocalypse Can’t Come Soon Enough.”

Example of a funeral selfie

Despite the slating of funeral selfies, one in three Brits have admitted to taking a selfie at a funeral and one in five millennials support the act. Why would somebody take a selfie, what is it that drives them to snap a picture when a loved one is soon to be buried or cremated? A paper by the International Journal of Communication titled "Selfies at Funeral: Mourning and Presence on Social Media Platforms" suggested that selfies at one of life’s most solemn moments had an underlying meaning. Professor Tony Walter has spent the last two decades researching into death in modern society. He suggested that:

“Selfies at funerals are an attempt to communicate emotional circumstances with a wider social network. They are about everyday people articulating their feelings towards deceased friends and relatives.”

The entire paper includes references to various professors and psychologists who have researched into the growing norm of social media and the trending topics, selfies and what it means. Compiled together the paper suggests that funeral selfies are about showcasing emotion. As the world becomes more connected online, sharing one’s life with one another is much easier. Is it the ability to communicate with groups of friends at once, for support during a difficult time that drives people to snap a funeral selfie? Although funeral selfies are being shamed, photography at funerals isn’t a new notion. Returning back to the Victorian era there are some similarities regarding taking pictures at funerals. Back then photography of the dead was considered the norm with the deceased often propped up into a seating position. It was a morbid way of remembering the dead, many photos often featured other family members in the photo, similar to a modern day family picture. The post-mortem photo overhauled the traditional painting portrait that was usually done, due the considerably low costs. The photos were meant to be a keepsake that the family could cherished.

Victorian family photo with dead infants

Bearing that in mind, is the funeral selfie as disrespectful as it’s made out to be?

One hundred years on from the Victorian era and funeral practices have gone from photography of the dead to a cheeky selfie. Yet both are or have been deemed to have been taken in a way to express emotion. Emotion that can then be shared with others. The mourning period has certainly changed, mainly due to the higher standard of living. People have the money to enjoy life which is being incorporated into funerals. Women are more equal and can choose how to dress, how to act and they can attend funerals. Nowadays funerals are as sombre as a person choses it to be, people plan their funeral ahead, they can choose how they would like to depart. There is also more variations of funerals and the traditional burial isn’t the only option a person has. Adding all of these factors up it’s not surprising that funerals have evolved.

But is Modern Day Mourning going too far or is it just another way to express emotion?

Guest blog by Katie Hetherington.

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