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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.”

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: Mourners pass by Etta James' casket at City of Refuge Church in Gardena. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times


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Comments (23)

She looks fine in the photo; sorry to see her go.

A bunch of namby pamby people who can't handle life complain about seeing death photos. The photo is tasteful - get over it.

Seriously you canbarely see her. It's not a war photo. It's actually quite touching. People sre just jumping on a band wagon.

It is VERY common at African American funerals to have an open casket. What is the big deal? She looked fine and her family and friends wanted to have a 'viewing'.

@ boochie - umm its common that people of all colors have open caskets at funerals....not just african americans.

My dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 52 in the San Fernando Valley. I was 21. His wife at the time (not my mother) had an open casket arrangement set up at the funeral home.

The 5 kids (my4 siblings and I) went to the funeral home and were so traumatized by seeing our father lying dead in that casket that we actually never made it into the viewing room or whatever it is called. We all 5 huddled at the door in shock and misery not knowing what we were supposed to do. The youngest of us was 14; the oldest 22.

That's my last image of my father still and it's more than 30 years later.

Open casket...not a good idea.

BTW we are caucasian atheists. My father was a Greek-Panamanian immigrant.

Kudos to Anne Cusack. She captured dignity, beauty, and grace at a very solemn moment.

This is life people. Death is part of it. As an entertainer, Etta was always in the publics' eye. I don't think she would have minded. She still looked good. RIP Etta.

When I was 10 years old my mother passed away from Rheumatic heart disease.I was in camp at the time and I was not allowed to attend my mothers funeral or burial.Because I was not able to have closure I suffered terrible emotional loss for many many years.Had someone taken a picture of my mother lying in her casket and taken pictures of her burial I could have had some closure,not the real thing of course but close.

If this was her family's request, then we should respect that this is what they wanted. I feel for the commenter whose father's open casket was upsetting, and I can understand why, but not everyone has the same reaction; for some people, it is comforting. It's too bad that the stepmother didn't prepare them for this, so that they could have chosen to avoid seeing it.

I think it's a beautiful photo. She looks like she's just sleeping...

Not only is it common in the Black community to have an open casket, but it's totally normal for family members to take photos of the deceased in the casket. I'm not sure where this tradition started, but trust me, it exists.

Wasn't there a trend once upon a time to prop the dead up and take a portrait? Just saying: photographing the dead happens

The American practice of taxiderming their dead for display is rather uncommon in the rest of the First World.

The practice of paying several thousand dollars to "prepare the body for viewing" is something of a bad joke on America's poorest households, which are the ones most likely to go in for this kind of thing.

Cynthia, what does your being an atheist have to do with this story. Why do atheists have to always feel the need to make it known to everyone? BTW, I am a white, male, college educated, professional engineer.

I just buried my mom Dec 9. She was 91. I had a closed casket, since most of the people who attended did not know her, and had just come to support me. I only opened the casket to see her myself, say goodbye, and take last photos of her. They may seem gruesome to some, but to me, they are the last earthly pictures of someone I love very much.

People in my mother's era attended a lot more funerals than people do today. Her parents and grandparents had more kids, and a lot of them lived nearby for decades, generations. They went to family funerals just as they did each others' baptisms, weddings, birthdays, and holiday parties. Funerals were a normal part of life, and gave live a certain, more serious perspective.

I remember her taking me to a wake when I was four - it was a family affair in a row house outside of Boston. It seemed very normal to me, and I'm glad I had a chance to experience some of the last of that sort of family life.

Everyone today lives such far-flung lives, nuclear families whose 1.4 kids are lucky to ever meet grandparents or cousins at all, let alone have the kind of do-it-yourself "kitchen parties" my mom's family had, where dozens of cousins brought covered dishes and musical instruments to play.

My husband is a fiddler, and sometimes he plays at local wakes in town. Having gone to more funerals that way lately, I can tell you: people should go to more funerals. They come away thinking about life differently, and cherish what they have left of it, and the people in it.

We will always remember her life.
The casket photo will never change that.

George Vreeland Hill

The woman's body is heavily made up and actually seems to look 'fancier" than the life size photo next to it.....the skin is a lot bleaches out with age I guess...if the family is happy with it, it is what counts. Never mind the viewers...

Death photos used to be commonplace in the 1800's. Dead people sitting up, babies in bassinets and posed, heck people used to even make "death masks" or molds of a deceased persons face.

When my sister's husband passed last year, she asked if I could take photos of the wake, the funeral and the military burial he received. I was at first, taken aback, but then I was honored that she wanted her photographer brother to capture these final images of the man she loved. I agreed to shoot the funeral and did it with much respect, stayed out of the way and was very unobtrusive to my family and the guests. To this day, those are cherished photos for my sister. I do not regret photographing the funeral.

The one thing I gather from all this is how uptight our society has become.

There is nothing wrong with having an open casket, for those who want a last look at their loved one, and then have a closed casket viewing for everybody else. Seeing the person is how I come to terms with the fact that they have died, and it helps me to release them emotionally.

And, as somebody also pointed out, this is commonly done at African American funerals.

When my dad died we had an open casket. He was a slender man and they added so much liquid to him that he looked bloated and fat. They also added a bit of lipstick and his hair was parted wrong. He looked really clown like. We laughed as he would have and didn't let it bother us as he raised us to know that even in death there is humor.

When my older sister died at 53 of heart disease, her family had an open casket. She was on different medications so to me it truly didn't look like my beautiful sister. Catch was though by the casket being open I was able to view her and to also bend down and share a final private joke with her.

Now though, sometimes I forget she is gone and think she is still in the mid west.
Both my parents looked awesome in their caskets and I can see them just as vivid today as I did with my mom in 2004, and my dad in 1980. Time flies but the memories remain. I kissed my dads cheek and placed a red rose in with him. With my mom I placed a teddy bear and a red rose with her. As you can tell I adored my parents. It is how the children of the deceased feel. It is truly none of our business to even open our mouths.

i am in no way being sarcastic but i am reading the la times online perusing various articles and over in the whitney houston thread on her casket photo people are up in arms but in this Etta James casket photo people seem to be ok with it. Im confused ?? what is the difference? before you say someone "snuck" the whitney photo this article in no way mentions that the photographer of this particular picture got permission

She looks like she's resting peacefully. If you can't deal with the image don't look....

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