The photographer Cornell Capa died nearly five years ago in New York City on May 23, 2008. He was laid to rest in the Quaker section of the village cemetery in Amawalk, New York. Then, his friends, relatives , and colleagues gathered for a Quaker ceremony at the nearby Amawalk Meeting House.
Capa was not particularly religious but he valued his religious heritage. He wore a Jewish shawl and recited kaddish for the funeral of his more famous brother Robert Capa. A kaddish was recited also at Cornell’s funeral.
Capa had a life-long interest in religion. He photographed religious Jews in New York and Israel, Russian Orthodox, evangelical missionaries in South America, and religious leaders like Reverend Billy Graham in the United States.
Capa dedicated himself to the philosophy of documentary photographer Lewis Hine, himself inspired by the Christian photographer Jacob Riis. Hine summed up his life’s ambition, “There are two things I wanted to do. I wanted to show the things that needed to be corrected. And I wanted to show the things that needed to be appreciated.”
Cornell Capa was born Kornél Friedmann to socially-concerned Jewish parents in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, on April 10, 1918. In 1936, he moved to Paris, where his brother Endre was working under the name Robert Capa as a photojournalist. He worked as his brother's printer until 1937, then moved to New York to join the new Pix photo agency, changing his name to Cornell Capa. In 1938 he began working in the Life darkroom. Soon his first photo essay on the New York World's Fair was published in Picture Post. In 1968 Capa published his statement about photography The Concerned Photographer, an anthology of photographs depicting a world in post-war crisis. In 1974 he founded the International Center of Photography.
Why was Capa, a non-believing Jew, given a Quaker funeral service and place in their cemetery? In a letter written on May 31, 2008, John Morris, the first executive director of Magnum Photos and a legendary picture editor at Life, explained to Capa’s family and friends why a Quaker burial was the one which Capa preferred. Morris wrote:
“… I last saw Cornell on April 19, at his regular Saturday lunch with friends. His last words to me were spoken with his eyes.
Thus we conclude a chapter in the history of photography that began 54 years ago. It was on May 25, 1954 that I got the news that Robert Capa had stepped on a land mine and died instantly, covering the French war in Indo China. That morning I had received the news of the death of Magnum’s great Swiss photographer Werner Bischof, in a road accident in Peru. I was then their editor, in Magnum. It was too much for one day.
The next morning I met with Bob’s mother Julia, his brother Cornell and Cornell’s wife Edie. What to do? The French had already held a military ceremony in Hanoi. Should Bob be buried with his great love Gerda Taro at Pere Lachaise in Paris? No, that was too long ago. As one who had distinguished himself in nine wars, albeit without firing a shot, should he be buried as a hero in Arlington National Cemetery? No, he was a man who sought peace, not war. Should he be subjected to the usual service for a non-religious Jew at a funeral home? No, that was too commonplace.
I happened to be a convinced Quaker, a member of the Friends Meeting in Purchase, New York, near my home in Armonk. I had recently attended a Quaker funeral, a meeting of friends to honor the departed one. Nobody presides; anyone may speak.
I told the Capas about it. The idea appealed to them. The following Sunday afternoon such a meeting was held in the old Purchase meeting house. Dozens of people spoke, telegrams were read. Cornell, donning a prayer shawl, recited Kaddish. Julia wailed her grief.
A few days later Capa arrived, in a huge French military coffin, airfreighted from Hanoi. The cemetery of Purchase Meeting was crowded. The Quakers at Amawalk, twenty miles to the north, found a place for him in their section of the town cemetery. We buried him on the hillside, with the Capa family, a few friends and a young photographer named Dirck Halstead, to whom Capa was a hero, in attendance.
On Wednesday, May 28, we shall bury Cornell in Amawalk, beside his brother, Bob, their mother Julia and Cornell’s wife Edie. Bob’s biographer Richard Whelan also lies nearby. The burial will be followed by a gathering in the Amawalk Meeting House. I shall be there, of course.”