Funeral photography and memorial photobooks: telling your loved one’s story

A photo of your loved one in their coffin might be confronting for some but, for funeral and end of life photographer Mel Noonan, it’s an important part of the story. After her father’s funeral, she created a photobook to document his life. And that included his funeral.

Peter Noonan’s daughter photographed him at his funeral and then made a photobook of his life, telling his story and compiling photos of his life and friends.

“It’s part of their life, part of their story, so therefore documenting it is important for those days when you’re in a haze at the funeral. Looking back on that day with a bit more clarity can give some kind of peace and calm to the situation when you’ve lost a loved one,” she told me.

“It finishes that circle of life for that person. You have photos of births, new borns, Christenings, birthdays, the 40th, the 50th, why not their funeral? It can still be a celebration of their life that I feel should be documented.”

I met Mel at Palliative Care Queensland’s Good Life Good Death expo late last year. She showed me her unique work and she, like me, has passion for telling the stories of the dead.

I love that Mel is using her photography skills to help families memorialise their loved ones. Check out her amazing photobook of her late father, Peter Noonan, here. It’s pretty cool. https://vimeo.com/388977046. The huge response to that labour of love has convinced her that there is a market out there for families, just like hers, who want to document their loved one’s funerals, wakes, or final days.

The front page of Mel’s photobook tribute to her father.

A photographer for 12 years doing commercial photography, family portraits and happier occasions, Mel has also volunteered her photography expertise with HeartFelt, an organisation dedicated to giving the gift of photographic memories to families that have experienced stillbirths, premature births or have children with serious and terminal illnesses.

“Me and other volunteer photographers get calls to go into the hospital and we’ll take photos of the baby, the siblings, parents holding hands with their baby – it’s very driven by the family and what they would like,” Mel said.

Mel’s Brisbane-based new end of life and funeral photography services are driven by whatever her client, the family, wants, be it photographing just the funeral, or the wake, or a viewing, or a person’s last days. Whatever they need.

“It’s really driven by the family. I can stand back and be invisible to them while they’re with their loved one and the open casket. If they like I can come closer and take shots of them holding their loved one, with their head against their loved one. Photographing and documenting the letters and cards that children or grandchildren have written that are in the coffin with the deceased is nice to show as well.

“From my own perspective, I had the done this with my own father and I now cherish those photos and always will. “

Mel admits that, because the subject of death and funerals has become taboo, funeral or end of life photography is not for everyone.

“But we have to talk about it. It doesn’t have to be morbid. For me, just looking back at the funeral photos of my dad’s funeral – the amount of people packed into the church – it shows what kind of person he was and shows who they touched in their life. It’s nice to document that and look at that later.”

Mel and her dad Peter.

I met Mel Noonan and really liked her work and could tell it was coming from the heart, having experienced her own loss. This is not a paid endorsement – as you know, I’m a big fan of telling the stories of the dead (hence my cemetery wanderings and blogs). Funeral and end of life photography is one of the ways of doing that.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage (Additional postage of AU$8 is payable for overseas orders). She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide.

The photo that changed it all: a funeral, a pact and an outlandish dress.

At the start of most books there’s a dedication page. It includes the name or names of people or things who have inspired the author.

Here’s what appears on The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan‘s dedication page. These names, the people and their work, hold a special significance for me.

The dedications at the front of The Bottom Drawer Book include Scottish soldier Private Kevin Elliott.

It’s been 10 years since Private Kevin Elliott was killed in a Taliban ambush in Afghanistan. He was on foot patrol when he was killed in an explosion caused by a rocket-propelled grenade in the Babaji district, Helmand province. He was 24 when he died on 31 August 2009.

Private Kevin Elliott of The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland.

I learned about Pte Elliott’s death when I saw a photograph in an online media article. The image stopped me and my tracks and I found myself staring at it for ages. I clearly remember where I was and what I was doing when I saw it. The incredible photograph by Jeff J Mitchell said so much but left me wanting to know more.

Sobbing in a Scottish cemetery was Barry Delaney, a mate of Pte Elliott. The grief in the photo is palpable and the dress is hard to miss. You see, the year before the friends had made a pact. One would wear an outlandish dress to the funeral of the other. It was a novel but effective way those two friends approached a really tough subject. They had a conversation about their mortality, they expressed their fears, THEY TALKED ABOUT IT, and they drank vodka. And this really resonated with me (the conversation, not so much the vodka).

Inspired by the strength and friendship between these two mates, I delved deeper into the story and eventually contacted Pte Elliott’s family.

In subsequent correspondence with his grandmother, I learned Pte Elliott had also told his family what he wanted if he was killed on active service. He told them he wanted to be buried wearing the jersey of his favourite football team and white socks. His wishes were followed.

DUNDEE, SCOTLAND – SEPTEMBER 15: Barry Delaney kneels weeping as mourners gather at Barnhill Cemetery in Dundee, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Best mates

“Kev was like my brother – we would have done anything for each other,” Barry Delaney told the Daily Record newspaper.

We said that whoever died first, the other one had to wear a pink dress with green spots to the funeral – and we shook on it. It was mainly his idea and the more I think about it, I’m sure Kevin knew something was going to happen.

Barry couldn’t find a pink dress with green spots so he chose a green one and added pink socks to make the outfit look sillier.

He told the newspaper: “It’s what Kev would have wanted.”

Barry Delaney as the coffin of Private Elliott arrives at Barnhill Cemetery.
(Photo by Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images)

Who was Private Kevin Elliott?

By all accounts he was full of mischief, a bit of a lad. His commanding officer called him a “lovable rogue”.

He didn’t really want to do that tour of Afghanistan and was due to quit the army. He’d already served in Iraq and Northern Ireland, but he didn’t want to let his mates down so he agreed to do one more tour.

Captain Harry Gladstone said, “I remember talking to him shortly before we left Inverness to deploy to Afghanistan in March. He was dressed in civilian clothes, having been de-kitted, and about to walk out of Fort George back to civilian life when he decided to sign back on. “

“When asked why he signed up again he simply said, ‘I didn’t want to miss the boys’.”

A video made by Pte Elliott’s family after his death.
Via Youtube theSandy2005

Full of cheek

Private Peter Fenton, Fire Support Group gunner called him cheeky:

But you couldn’t get annoyed with him. He was always able to get a laugh in any situation. He would bend over backwards to make sure everyone was all right. “He was hilarious, confident, loyal, and above all charming.

Private Kyle Russell, Fire Support Group gunner, said:

A story typical of Kev was on having a room inspection in Fort George, the Platoon Sergeant opened the fridge to see it full of beer. He told Kev to get rid of it; Kev proceeded to drink the contents of the fridge in front of him and continued for the rest of the night.

“Kev was kind and generous – he lived for the moment. If you asked for a fag, he threw you a packet of twenty. He was a terrible singer but my fondest memory of him was sitting in the back of a vehicle screaming out the words to ‘I got you babe’ at the top of his voice.”

Lance Corporal Ian Bruce, Fire Support Group gunner, said that Kev would stir people up:

Kev was a poser – he loved his body – but underneath he cared deeply about the other people in the platoon. He would try and wind people up but you couldn’t get annoyed with him, he was too nice. He wanted to be active the entire time.

He loved being in Afghanistan and had booked a holiday to Australia for our return. He also wanted a pair of white socks to walk down Dundee High Street pulling the birds! We will all miss him badly.

As part of the incredible Fallen Heroes Project, this hand drawn portrait of Pte Kevin Elliott was given to his family by artist Michael G. Reagan. Michael has drawn thousands and thousands of portraits of soldiers, free of charge.  He says, “Each portrait is intended to show our love and respect for these Heroes and their families”.

The legacy

The photo of Barry Delaney in that lime green dress planted a seed in me that, several years later, sprouted The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan. I wanted others to be like Pte Elliott and Barry Delaney. I wanted people to have that tough conversation about their mortality and funeral plans, in whatever form that may take.

With the fantastic help of The Royal Regiment of Scotland, I was able to get in touch with Pte Elliott’s family. I wanted them to know that their son, grandson, brother, uncle and nephew had inspired something positive and I wanted them to know that, even though I was a complete stranger on the other side of the world, I was thinking of him.

Five years after Pte Elliott’s death, I sent the family my book. Written on the dedication page was “Private Kevin Elliott”. I didn’t know if it was the right thing to do so I asked the advice of the army’s bereavement officer. He gave a positive response.

The response

I foolishly opened the card and read it on the steps of the Tamworth Post Office. It was so beautiful, I openly cried.

The card sent to me in 2014 by Pte Elliott’s grandmother is one of my most treasured possessions.

I didn’t really expect a reply but Pte Elliott’s grandmother, Joan T Humphreys, sent me a delightful thank you card.

An anti-war campaigner, Joan has been a vocal member of the Stop the War campaign.

While I will keep most of the contents of that card to myself, including the list of novel things that Pte Elliott wanted put in his coffin, I was so glad to know his family appreciated what I’d done.

Mrs Humphreys wrote, “Your book is delightful. Although it is a sombre subject, myself and many of my family and friends laughed many times during reading it.

“Thank you for sending the book and thank you for honouring Kevin by your dedication to him,” she wrote.

One of many

Private Kevin Elliott wasn’t the only soldier killed in that ambush on 31 August 2009. Fellow Black Watchman Sergeant Stuart Millar also died. Newly married and with a young daughter, he was 40 years old.

As you know, thousands upon thousands of people have been killed at war and their families live with their loss every single day.

Let’s not forget them. Lest we forget.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage (Additional postage of AU$9 is payable for overseas orders). She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert holds The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.
Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide.