Skip to main content

What's the etiquette of 'selfies' at funerals?

By Elaine Swann
updated 8:06 PM EST, Wed December 11, 2013
Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt shares a joke with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Nelson Mandela memorial as UK Prime Minister David Cameron looks on. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt shares a joke with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Nelson Mandela memorial as UK Prime Minister David Cameron looks on.
HIDE CAPTION
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
Obama selfie: How did it unfold?
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elaine Swann: Obama "selfie" with Denmark PM at Mandela memorial looked inappropriate
  • But photog said it was during celebratory part of service; first lady had been smiling, too
  • She says selfie appropriate for Obama, given circumstances, but not usually OK at funerals
  • Swann: In church, synagogue, at services, selfies not OK etiquette. Wait until afterward

Editor's note: Elaine Swann is the founder of the Elaine Swann Leadership Academy, where she provides etiquette seminars for businesses, universities and individuals across the United States.

(CNN) -- On its face, the now-viral photo of Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt taking a "selfie" with President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron—at a memorial service for anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, no less—looks wildly inappropriate. And no question, President Obama has taken a lot of media heat for participating. (It didn't help that the expression on Michelle Obama's face appeared to be disapproving.)

In the realm of funeral etiquette, those two factors—the memorial service, the glowering wife-- taken together, scream "social faux pas." But there was more to the story behind the image. Roberto Schmidt, the photographer who captured the photo told the "Today" show that he shot the picture during a jovial, celebratory portion of the service. He said people were dancing, singing and laughing as they celebrated the life of Nelson Mandela. Michelle Obama, he said, had been laughing along with the trio seconds before he snapped the image.

Elaine Swann
Elaine Swann

Understood. But a few questions remain. Is it proper to take a selfie at a funeral? And was President Obama out of line for doing so -- because he is the president, you know.

Under the circumstances Schmidt described, I'd say the selfie was not necessarily in poor taste for the President. But was it poor form? As President of the United States, a man watched and scrutinized at every angle, he is no doubt very careful about how his behavior is perceived. He surely knew that picture would wind up pinging around the Internet and on the evening news and cleverly headlined front pages. Perhaps he wanted to send a message to the people, anyway, to say, "Hey, I'm just like you."

Now if he wanted to avoid the scrutiny altogether and send a more somber message to the public, he might have held off and joined in on the picture in a more private setting. The moment, however, did not seem to call for such discretion. What's my bottom line? President Obama's behavior was appropriate for that particular occasion, for that particular culture at that precise moment.

And what is the protocol for behavior at funerals for the rest of us: selfies and beyond?

Photographer of Obama selfie speaks out
Photographer of Obama selfie speaks out

Well, if you, too, happen to attend a funeral or memorial service at a stadium where the people are up dancing and singing and laughing in the aisles, then it's perfectly fine to take a selfie with your seat mates.

The key here is that there is a proper time and place for everything, and that's where decorum comes in. That I would need to explain this will seem surprising to some, but this is, after all, a time when websites such as Selfies at a Funeral exist. So bear with me: Firing off a selfie during a solemn moment such as the prayer or scripture reading is highly inappropriate and terribly disrespectful.

The same shot during the gathering or meal service afterward is all right. Taking photos within the confines of the church or synagogue or funeral home can be perceived as highly inappropriate. It is important to be aware of this and remain respectful of the family, the culture and the environment you are in.

Funerals and memorials take on a different meaning from culture to culture; some are very somber, others quite celebratory. It is our duty to be sensitive to the entire moment and in some cases it might be difficult to tell what that requires. Here's a handy rule of thumb: To avoid offending, err on the side of caution and just hold off on that selfie until the funeral has ended.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Elaine Swann.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT