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I had a great meeting this morning with Paul Fears, a professional photographer. It was an extremely uplifting experience as we chatted for an hour and a half about ……. yep ……. death and dying! The people sitting next to us in the Village Hotel foyer were certainly giving us the occasional funny look probably thinking that we were a couple of macabre lunatics.

I met Paul quite recently at a networking event and we got chatting. He was telling me about his work as a photographer and I mentioned to him that there was a still small but nonetheless increasing demand for professional photographers to be present at funerals to record the event for the family. He wasn’t aware of this. I suggested that he might like to add funeral photography to his portfolio of services, unaware at the time that Paul is especially well qualified to take on such sensitive commissions.

If you visit Paul’s web site (http://www.paulfearsphoto.co.uk) you will see the usual array of photographic services. But there’s one service that Paul doesn’t actively promote, concerned that it might be considered in poor taste: photographing people, many of them children, as they approach the end of their lives.

The very special thing about Paul is that he has lived with the underlying but daily threat of death now for 20 years – and not his own. Paul’s Down’s syndrome son, Greg, was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension when he was just two years old and his parents were given a life expectancy for Greg of just eight years. He is now 22.

As a result of his son’s illness, Paul has had a lot of involvement over the years with Ty Hafan, a team of palliative care specialists that works with life-limited children and their families. (Go to http://www.tyhafan.org). As anyone who has ever watched a documentary about Great Ormond Street Hospital will know, even when children are seriously ill, life for them and their families isn’t all doom and gloom. There are parties, laughs and jokes set against the ever present backdrop of potential imminent loss. From his own experience, Paul recognised that families might want to capture some of these precious moments for when their child is no longer around, so that, in time, they can look back with happiness on their child’s life and remember the good times amongst the bad. So Paul has been providing this service, free of his professional charges, to families who want it. And his sensitive approach, informed by his own personal circumstances, means that the end results are something that bring the families great joy and comfort.

In addition, one of Paul’s closest friends lost his battle to cancer aged 52. Just prior to his death, Paul’s friend asked him if he would shoot a family portrait. Even though it’s evident that he was very ill when it was taken, surrounded by his wife and children and with a beaming smile, this final photograph is a wonderful memento of a husband and father and is one of the family’s most treasured possessions.

Also, this friend had asked Paul to deliver the eulogy at his funeral that would be a true reflection of the life he’d led and be more of a celebration of the good times. He said that it must be kept secret from everyone until the actual funeral service. Paul had traveled extensively with his friend in their younger days and had lots of stories to tell, most of which the family were completely unaware. There was laughter from everyone in the congregation, including the family, who expressed gratitude to Paul for such a warm, funny and very human tribute to the man they’d loved and lost. While Paul gave a copy of the ‘script’ to the family he admits that what he actually said varied as thoughts had come to him while speaking. He wishes that there had been someone there to video the speech and the congregation’s response to it, believing that this would be a wonderful thing for his friend’s family to have, especially as the children get older and memories fade.

I remember at my own father’s funeral in August 2009, the weather had been atrocious for weeks and I was fully expecting and dreading a grey, very wet, miserable day. In the event, we got lucky and the day of the funeral was beautiful. We all ended up back at my sister’s house. She has a very large back garden and a spontaneous game of cricket somehow came about among the old, not so old and very young in attendance. Cricket had been my dad’s game in the summer. I can remember him sitting for hours with the cricket on the TV in the living room, apparently oblivious to what was going on as he appeared to be totally absorbed in the Daily Telegraph, that is, until one of us dared to approach the TV to switch channels. This was in the early 70s before remote controls. Then he would emerge from behind the paper with a look that warned us not to take another step. I sat watching the cricket and could imagine my dad watching from wherever he now was and thoroughly enjoying the antics out of everyone. It was such a lovely day and I thought afterwards how it would have been great to have some nice photos or even a recording of the cricket game.

Of course, funeral photography is always going to be a very sensitive service and I’m sure that it won’t be for everyone, professional photographers and the bereaved alike. But I believe that, as people increasingly come to view funerals as more of a celebration of a loved one’s life, recording the event, far from being seen as morbid, will be seen as just another way to create and keep yet more precious memories.

In my humble opinion, if anyone is qualified to deliver such a service it would be Paul Fears.

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