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 2:19 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
updated 10:52 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
updated 2:32 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
updated 5:03 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
updated 5:25 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
updated 4:55 PM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Wed October 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT