Of crossed arms and the mortar board

By Dr Shawn Sobers, 20.7.2017

Associate Professor – Lens Based Media, University of the West of England, Bristol

Twitter @shawnsobers


Graduation season this year for me coincided with funeral season for my family. Last Friday, in the morning I was giving out certificates celebrating the achievements of children I did not know for a Children’s University graduation ceremony. In the afternoon I attended the funeral of a family friend of parent’s age that I have known all my life. I called him Uncle.

Today (Thursday), I took my parents to the funeral of a family friend from church, another elder who I called Mr, who again I have known all my life.  Later in the afternoon I attended the graduation ceremony of my BA Photography students, who I have worked with for the past three years.

Two days and four events all celebrating life, albeit with opposite nuance.  Funerals celebrate lives lived and achievements made.  Graduations celebrate achievements made and lives to be lived. Both are forms of reunion, both can have tears, both are (or can be) inspirational and motivational.  In the specific case of the events I attended, the youngest of the Children’s University was about 8, and the eldest of those buried was 88.  In both cases we witness an event of transition, sitting in rows communally taking in lessons from the orator; what can the example of the person(s) at the centre of attention tell us about our own lives, and how we treat personal choice and opportunity? Both are full of solemn pomp and ceremony, symbolism and tacit understanding of how to behave and what to wear. Both can also contain laughter. 

Perhaps the thin veneer that separates a funeral from a graduation is where the presence of hope is at the precise time of witness – hope lost and hope wished for. That is not to say that funerals do not contain any hope, as they can contain plenty, however it does need to be acknowledged that at funerals there is also the unavoidable knowledge that something significant has had to be lost in order to be gained. Graduations hold no such burden, (the shadow of the student debt to be paid might be a loss of sorts, an elephant in the room, but seldom in the room of the graduation ceremony itself, which is full optimism).  Hope lost and hope wished for – a significant veneer that renders funerals observances of death (loss) and graduations observances of birth (gift), yet hope is ever present in both cases, with funerals in the potential of those who remain, and in graduations the presence of those celebrated. The writer Sharon Salzberg tells us,

“To celebrate someone else’s life, we need to find a way to look at it straight on, not from above with judgment or from below with envy.” [i]

Take it as a given that both events are attended with love in the hearts of the witnesses. (To imagine anything other than that is too painful to comprehend.) It could be asked at this point, these parallels are all well and good, but what use is it to compare funerals and graduations in this way? That is a fair question.  For me, as a visual anthropologist, it is a matter of understanding the power of context and intention in any given moment, and how that can completely change the actions of an event, even when on the surface, with an alien point of view, those events could appear to be quite similar in appearance at some levels, (with some obvious differences).  Fundamentally however I’m also interested in the human motivation to witness and communally congregate to do so.  There is something about allowing others into a space to publicly acknowledge and share in the celebration of this life lived, and these achievements made, in a congregation of a temporary community of interest, that make it real, tangible, valuable, and memorable.  Attendees are participants in sharing, and are keepers of the story to tell others that this thing happened.  Maybe one day (I shall be cautious of speaking too soon), but I cannot imagine either event would have the satisfaction it had by experiencing it via Skype, Facetime, Facebook Live, Snap Chat, or any other digital and remote platform.  Though that said, I have attended a Christening where one of the Godparents attended via an iPad screen, and at the funeral last week I was both an attendee, and the official photographer, capturing the moments for those who couldn’t attend, and images for later perusal for close family who could.  This was not the first funeral I have photographed and/or filmed, I have done plenty, and it feels like a growing market. Cameras at these events see witnessing of a different form, an added layer of commemoration and aid for remembrance.  

I personally found being in attendance of both events on the same day a privilege, one that affords a vantage point scope of anticipate lives that lie ahead, from this moment in time a vast unknown.  On the other end of the spectrum lives that have been lived and now looked back on, some of which we may have experienced first-hand and witnessed, and others heard about in eulogies.  At both ends of the spectrum hope is held onto carefully like a glass orb passed around the witnesses.  The reflection in the glass is two-fold – seeing the face and *legacy/potential of the person being celebrated, and also your own face looking back at you.  This is the moment when the attendees become the key participants in sharing. At a funeral any sadness we feel is partly at what the deceased has lost, and also a pain in what we have lost.  At a graduation any joy we feel is partly happy for what the graduate has gained, and a warmth that we are there to share this moment with them.  The reflected face is asking us what are we witnessing, what story (lesson) are we going to tell about what we witnessed, what was significance of you being the witness, and what are you going to do next?  Even lost hope means it is still out there, somewhere, waiting to be found.


[i] Salzberg, S. (2017) Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection. Bluebird Books, London

dsc_0186[After 3, throw your hats in the air. 1,2,3…]

(c) Shawn Sobers words and photograph, 20.7.2017
Sharon Salzberg quote, original copyright remains


2 thoughts on “Of crossed arms and the mortar board

  1. This beautiful reflection reminded me of a spontaneous friendship I gained walking on Ben Nevis four years ago. I met this British guy Jeph, who had lived happily in New Mexico for 25 years but was starting to miss the UK; his walk was part of a 3 month sabbatical. We kept stopping independently for rests, and accidently catching each other up; in the end we laughed it off and simply shared the walk down. He was a man in his seventies still searching with the zest of youth, in that way he felt a bit of a kindred sprit.

    Our friendship continued for many months via e-mail, openly sharing our hopes, dreams, random thoughts, meanderings, observations, frustrations, and outpourings, until Jeph was sadly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died a few weeks later. It was a shock; here was the fit wiry guy who walked up the UK’s tallest mountain in work boots and denims, contemplating a ‘retirement’ full of adventure, which I sensed had already begun. It seemed like last week we’d opened our arms to hug the mountain, slipped repeatedly on the wet stone path and swigged single malt out of a sporran hip flask (without the sporran). A couple of weeks passed without me hearing from him, and feeling his loss I searched for him through Google, it led me to a eulogy his American friends had put together in his memory.

    Until that point I felt very alone in my grief and in a way I was. But this one simple web page brought me closer to his friends whom I had never met, but who clearly loved him too. Before this experience I would have been skeptical of any form of digital mourning, but in response to your post, I think this too says something about context and intention. Perhaps in an increasingly mobile world, remote forms of loss will be an everyday part of the deal. Yet rather than feel cynical, I’ll join you in hope. And consider that this somewhat invisible sharing of grief, answered my hopeful question that Jeph touched many other lives in addition to mine.

  2. That’s really beautiful. I’m honoured you wrote this as a response. Really lovely reflection. I remember you telling me about Jeph when you came back, and the warmth you spoke of him then really comes through in your writing. Lovely you found that website tribute to him. Thanks for sharing this. Shawn x

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