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 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT