Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Curious Historical Tradition of Funeral Photography. #FolkloreThursday

Modern photos taken at funerals and posted to social media often result in comments of shock and disgust, but photographs commemorating these sad but important events were once a fairly common practice. The following two images are from the funeral of Fanny Noel, my great aunt, who was born in 1907 and died of tuberculosis June 30th 1921. Fanny was the eldest child of Sarah Jane Moores and William Henry Noel, whose home in Freshwater, Carbonear is still in the family and can be seen in the second photograph.

Fanny Noel's funeral procession with "The Tolt" in the background. 1921. Courtesy of Barbara Noel Drover

Fanny was part of a local Methodist girls group, and the young women seen dressed in white in both of these photographs would have been members of that group. Surrounded by those in attendance is Fanny Noel's coffin, drawn by a horse and white to symbolize her young age. The first photo also shows farmland, and the prominent natural feature of Freshwater known as "The Tolt."

Fanny Noel's funeral procession leaving her home in Freshwater Carbonear. 1921. Courtesy of  Barbara Noel Drover 
Funeral photos are not that rare in Newfoundland and Labrador. In September 2016 Terra Barrett interviewed Cindy Snow about growing up on Signal Hill and the relocation of the community (listen to the interview on the MUN DAI.) Included in that collection was the following photograph of the casket of Mildred Whiteway outside her home.

Mildred Whiteway waking in home. Signal Hill. February 25th 1953. Courtesy of Bill Whiteway via Cindy Snow. 

Similar funeral photographs are also found throughout the various archives of Newfoundland and Labrador. The following scene is found at The Rooms Provincial Archives in the series "Views of Newfoundland" by Stanley Truman Brooks and Betty Watt Brooks for The Newfoundland Tourist Development Board.

VA 6-59 Funeral Procession through Ferryland [1935]. Courtesy of The Rooms Provincial Archives.
Another example from the Provincial Archives, this time from the George W. Bailey fonds, shows a casket being carried to a waiting horse and wagon. The location is a St. John's wharf near Harvey and Company Pier 2. In the background are the warehouse and barrels on the wharf, as well as what looks to be parts of Water and Duckworth streets.

B 22-6. Men Carrying Coffin, St. John's Wharf [1931]. Courtesy of The Rooms Provincial Archives
While these photographs are often considered taboo today, they were once an important part of the funeral process. They commemorated the dead and a significant event for the family and community, showed who was in attendance, and could be shared with those who were not able to be there. In researching funeral practices, they are a wonderful resource to identify some of the important aspects of the particular event, and death practices in an era and community. They can also be used in research on the community in general. The image of Mildred Whiteway's wake documents a house and community which was once located where the Geo Centre is situated today. The image of a coffin on a St. John's wharf also shows an important business and what the St. John's harbour looked at the time.The photographs of Fanny Noels funeral show how the landscape of Freshwater in 1921, and how the Noel home has changed in the nearly 100 years since the funeral.

In addition to funeral processions, photographers also took post-mortem photos of the deceased. These often misunderstood images were a loving way to preserve the memory of a family member. A good example from the City of St. John's Archive is the mortuary portrait of Eng Wing Kit, also known as Charlie Wing Kit or Check Yen, who died on the night of 3 July 1938. He was found the next morning in the kitchen of his restaurant, the Regal CafĂ©, in St. John’s. He was hanging from a rope that had been tied to an iron bar, suspended between the stove and a counter. The police investigation resulted in a mass questioning of the entire Chinese community, but due to the belief that Eng Wing Kit had been killed by a Chinese secret society, or “tong”, many members of the community were uncooperative.

Eng Wing Kit in his coffin. Photo # 01-21-003. A2002-030. Jack Fitzgerald Collection. City of St. John’s Archives.
These are all important images that deserve to be identified and preserved for the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. If you are interested in this topic, check out the previous blog post by Nicole Penney Postmortem Photographs: a long standing misconception

If you have funeral photographs from Newfoundland and Labrador, and would like to share, please email

~ Kelly

1 comment:

jill said...

My dad's family were from SE Missouri, USA. They always took pictures of the deceased in the coffin. I think they came from Tennessee and the Carolinas before that, but don't know where the custom originated.

Jill Stepp Johnston