Professional instincts inclined Nell Aburto to photograph her first funeral four years ago, after her father died. But the Andover-based photographer didn't get very far in documenting his service before she felt it was more important to be immersed in the moment than try to preserve it.
A few years later, at her mother's funeral, Aburto again attempted to take photographs, but once more, she quickly set her camera aside.
Aburto's failure to photograph her parents' funerals made her realize what an important service it could be, and how awkward it was for families to undertake it themselves. Though professional photographers memorialize so many life milestones — graduations and engagements, weddings and births — Americans' notorious discomfort with death makes funeral photography rare.
Aburto hopes to change that with Minnesota Funeral Photography, which she launched late last year. "We are photographed and celebrated from the moment we're born, and then photographed our whole life, so why not have your death also memorialized?" she asks.
Because of the way COVID has restricted gatherings, sharing photos from a smaller funeral can make those who weren't able to attend feel included.
Post-mortem photography has become increasingly common in recent years as more people recognize its benefits. Such photos can memorialize those lost and help normalize death as a part of life — as they did when the practice was common, in the first decades after the daguerreotype's introduction.
In documenting sad events with the same care as joyful ones, families can emphasize the love inherent in a loss. And, increasingly, they're also sharing these photos in more public ways. While some people are offput by the digitally-driven trend to broadcast difficult or taboo aspects of our lives, many find it helps them forge more authentic connections with others.
Last fall, Chrissy Teigen, the model and cookbook author with 33 million Instagram followers, made waves by sharing photos that documented the heartbreaking loss she and her husband, the musician John Legend, experienced when their son was stillborn at 20 weeks.
By posting the photos, Teigen said she hoped to help other people who have lost a baby or were curious to know what such an experience is like — haters be damned. "These photos are only for the people who need them," she wrote.
Telling the story of the day
This spring, Aburto started taking her first commissions, capturing poignant images of a family laying hands on the casket, a pensive moment beside the grave, a vibrant bouquet, a comforting embrace, and many multigenerational vignettes.
She strives to reflect the range of emotions loss can spur — tears, reflection, laughter — and reflect the beauty infused in moments of sadness. "I just want to tell the story of the day in pictures," she said.
Aburto has photographed a handful of funerals so far, including an elderly veteran's graveside service at Fort Snelling, where she documented the military honors of rifle volley, flag presentation, taps and final salute.
She also photographed the memorial of a middle-aged father who died in a motorcycle accident, which included many customs of the biker community. The man made his last ride to the cemetery — ashes ferried on the funeral director's Harley — alongside a procession of other riders.
Having a photographer document a funeral isn't something many people think to do. But once they see the photos, Aburto said, clients have told her how grateful they are to have a remembrance of the service — not only for themselves, to help put a day that often feels like a blur into sharper focus, but to share with others.
Aburto said the reaction she gets to her new business has been "99.5% positive" and she thinks funeral photography will become more common as people share images online, even of their most tragic losses. "I think people definitely want to put it out there, and tell their story, and be heard and understood," she said.
For Teigen, the model, that sentiment was very true. In a post on Medium, Teigen explained why she asked Legend to take photos in the hospital: so she could remember losing her son as clearly as she remembers their wedding and birth of two other healthy children.
"I knew I needed to know of this moment forever," she wrote. "And I absolutely knew I needed to share this story."
A brief, beloved life
Eighteen years ago, Jessica Person gave birth to a baby with trisomy 18, a rare genetic disorder. Baby Eli lived for a beautiful, song-and-tear-filled half-hour — they sang him into heaven, the family likes to say. Jessica's husband, Brad, took photos of Eli, to help them remember his brief, beloved life.
After Jessica and Brad returned home, they hosted a large open house to celebrate Eli, with the guest of honor present though a display of his father's photos. "That was driven by his pictures," Jessica Person said of Eli's birthday party. "So people could meet him. It was so important to us was that people would acknowledge his life. Just because he was gone, that didn't mean he wasn't here. And how do we grieve appropriately if you can't have a shared knowledge?"
At the time, the Persons' decision to photograph a son they wouldn't bring home from the hospital was unusual. But the Persons found that their photos of Eli helped them heal from his loss. And the couple, who are both professional photographers, have since helped other parents in similar circumstances by volunteering with the nonprofit Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, (NILMDTS) which has been offering free, in-hospital portrait sessions to families whose babies are stillborn or die or shortly after birth.
Remembrance photography, as the practice is known, started to become more widely accepted after NILMDTS was launched in 2005 by a Colorado mother who had lost a newborn.
Jessica Person, who is on the board of NILMDTS, said remembrance photography is now routinely offered by hospitals as a standard of patient care. Photographers conduct about 4,000 portrait sessions a year, with 14 active volunteers in the Twin Cities responsible for around 100 of them.
Those numbers are expected to grow with the organization's recent launch of a course that trains health care providers to take portraits when a professional photographer is unavailable, as was the case this spring when COVID-19 restricted hospital access.
Increasingly, Person said, families will hang the photos in their homes and share them online. "It's been pretty well accepted, and the outpouring of support is fairly uniformly positive," Person said of the practice. "That's not something we would have seen in 2005."
When one of Person's acquaintances learned about Eli, she told Person that she had a stillborn son decades ago and hadn't been allowed to see him — the medical staff told her it would be better that way.
"That's how far we've come from 50, 60 years ago," Person said. "Now we mark time, we say they were here, we don't try to hide from the grief because we know now that we have to walk through it and we have to remember."
Rachel Hutton • 612-673-4569