Recently, I discovered the work of Roberto Donetta, an amateur traveling photographer who lived and captured images in alpine Switzerland villages in the early 20th century. As an artist photographer, he documented street and village life scenes for pleasure, but he also was a working photographer, documenting family milestones and life on request.
His photographs are fascinating in their detail of village life and customs of the time
Of special interest from the archives is the vast body of funeral and deathbed photography Donetta did. Just like today, with trends in senior portraits, prom pictures, and wedding photography, much of Donetta’s likely-paid work centered around special family moments, funerals included.
This was the era before funeral homes–the bodies are photographed at home, often in the bed they likely died in. Some bodies are elaborately set, with greenery, netting, candles, and personalized ribbons everywhere. Other pictures are simple, just the deceased laid out in his finest on the family bed, hands folded over the waist, perhaps with family around.
The funerals themselves were clearly elaborate community affairs. Dozens of pictures showed long snaking columns of mourners on foot, led by white-robed priests, the casket on a caisson, or perhaps being carried on shoulders.
In this era of ubiquitous cameras (everyone’s phone has one!), which begets selfies and the accompanying outrage over photography (selfie or otherwise) at funerals, this archive really reminds me that there is indeed value in documenting death and funerals. Clearly, if it is done well, documentary photography at a death can be a very powerful and timeless gift.