Open-casket photo surprises some Etta James fans
Reporter Randy Lewis noticed that the first comment on his article about the funeral Saturday of R&B singer Etta James wasn’t about the story but the image that accompanied it. The photo, above, which ran online and as one of two in the print edition, showed mourners passing by James’ open casket.
In the discussion section, commenter budsaylor wrote: “pretty surprised they showed her actual BODY laid to rest in the photo. not usual (or really that cool to do)”
Another commenter, Lucy_Furr, added, “much better to remember someone in life (how they looked), than in death.”
Lewis thought the concerns were valid, and noted that mourners had been specifically asked not to take any photos when the casket was opened at the end of the private service.
“What are the parameters for deciding when this is appropriate and when it's not?” Lewis asked.
Deputy Director of Photography Calvin Hom said there are generally three factors that photo editors consider before deciding to publish an open-casket photo: “taste, newsworthiness and proportion.”
With the photo of James, the photo editor and page designer discussed whether it might be considered obtrusive, Hom said, and concluded that “the photo had a quiet dignity about it” and displayed “love and respect.”
Photographer Anne Cusack, who covered the funeral, said she had put her cameras down when the no-photos request was made. She then obtained permission to resume taking photos; the request was intended for members of the public carrying cellphones or personal cameras.
“We do not run open-casket photos just because we can,” Hom said. “In this case, the deceased was a famous woman, and the family was open to the idea of us covering the event.”
A later commenter on Lewis’ article wrote that he’d attended a public viewing for James the day before the funeral and had no problem with the photo: “I saw her Friday night, and she was beautiful.”
Photo: Mourners pass by Etta James' casket at City of Refuge Church in Gardena. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times