One recent night, as my concern mounted about the spreading coronavirus, my partner observed in reassurance: “It’s not like it’s the Spanish flu. People are still able to hold funerals.” On the very next day came the news that Italy had banned civil and religious ceremonies, including funerals — meaning people can no longer come together to grieve the dead. With coronavirus cases exponentially rising in the United States, this problem may soon be ours, too: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that families hold “virtual” funerals, streamed online, to limit the numbers in attendance.
Most of us have adjusted quickly, or tried to, amid the radical changes that constitute our new normal. But this possibility — that the newly bereaved may be unable to hold funerals — is a gutting reality we may never make peace with. Within it lies the trauma of the pandemic: This global public health crisis brings with it a surge of infection-driven death and chaos (temporary, we hope) that few of us have ever witnessed. There’s a lot we can numb ourselves to in order to survive. But I’m not sure we can numb ourselves to the idea that we can no longer come together for funeral rites — behavior that defines us as human.
Mourning rituals across cultures show that we need others to grieve with us. After my mother died in late 2008, I was struck by how these rituals, which had once seemed rote to me, suddenly became important. I craved social recognition that I was no longer myself, exactly, that the loss had made me a new person. The bereaved need witnesses to help them begin to separate themselves from the dead, to adjust to the sudden, shocking absence of their beloveds. Most cultures have a scripted set of customs: rituals tied to the preparation of the body; rules about the period before the burial. At an Irish wake, mourners gather to visit the body of the deceased, saying their goodbyes and often telling celebratory, even raucous stories in honor of the life now gone. In Jewish culture, mourners sit shiva typically for seven days, supporting those who were closest to the dead person. In many such rituals, visitors are meant to take their cue from the primary mourners — looking at the floor if the widow was somber, talking if she wanted to talk. In the Muslim tradition, the body is buried as soon as possible, but visits of comfort happen afterward (again, it is believed that social encounters help with grief), as well as a 40-day mourning period, in which the community is encouraged to send flowers and food to the bereaved. To support mourners, many traditions feature more than one ritual over the course of a year or two at specific times, including, in Judaism, the yahrzeit observance, commemorating the anniversary of a death. Everywhere, food is welcome and passed around: “a small, good thing,” as Raymond Carver put it in a short story about sharing fresh bread after an unthinkable loss.
The coronavirus pandemic is changing us in ways we can’t imagine yet. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the dead exert power over us long after they are gone. All the more so when the circumstances of loss are traumatic, as they are now in northern Italy, where the hospital system is overwhelmed and near breaking — and as they may soon be in the United States. In “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,” the historian Drew Gilpin Faust points out that the mass casualties in that war “transformed the American nation as well as the hundreds of thousands of individuals directly affected by loss.” Americans began referring to the “ordinary death” that existed before the war, distinct from the extraordinary deaths during it. Surrounded by death, Americans embraced ideas that made it seem less of an irrevocable loss: The first national Spiritualist conference was held in 1864 in Chicago, the idea that it was possible to communicate with the dead having grown more popular during the war years. Some modern funeral practices — embalming, for example — were born of an emotional need then: Families wanted to see the bodies of their loved ones, and embalming helped slow their decomposition, allowing them to be shipped home on slow trains.
Through mourning, we insist that erasure isn’t complete. We honor what was and give shape to the fact that — through our loss, our love — the person who is gone still exists in our minds. Our disposal of our dead distinguishes us from animals. As the scholar Robert Pogue Harrison writes in “The Dominion of the Dead,” “Humans bury not simply to achieve closure and effect a separation from the dead, but also and above all to humanize the ground on which they build their worlds and found their histories.” When we don’t do it, we have a sense of deep wrong. Think of the lengths to which we go to recover the bodies of fallen soldiers. In 1993, for example, the American ambassador to Somalia negotiated with clan leaders in Mogadishu to bring home the bodies of the helicopter crewmen and Special Ops soldiers who had been dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. In this current crisis, it’s not as if we won’t be burying our dead, but many people are dying alone in hospitals, unable to say goodbye to their loved ones, and even in the days after, an essential social element is missing. Something in us, at the core of our humanity, wants to elegize, to remember — and to do it together.
The science of mourning is hard to pin down, as one might expect with such a complex human process, but studies suggest that rituals do help the bereaved: They bring some immediate relief to acute grief, and they establish formal avenues of coping and social support. Holding a funeral, saying goodbye to a loved one’s body, marks the rift between life and death, the rending of the universe we feel. To bury, Harrison writes, is not literally or merely to put in the earth (humans also have cremation, and sky burial, and more), but “in a broader sense it means to store, preserve, and put the past on hold.”
So what happens to us now, in a moment that presents these challenges? As during the Civil War, we face a bright line between the ordinary past and the extraordinary present, a before and a now whose full ramifications — emotional, economic, psychological and national — we cannot begin to understand. We hardly know what now is; we won’t until the worst is over. Along the way, we will surely find alternate ways to grieve, watching our funerals on the blue light of our screens, distant but not isolated, trying to be together while apart. The challenge is to find meaning in the chaos — to find a story we can hold onto, even in the stark absence of a reassuring ending to this pandemic in sight.
The coronavirus pandemic will be understood by its cost in lives, but also by its economic, social and cultural costs, by how it forces us to reconceive ourselves and our humanity. This is yet another reason to push to “flatten the curve,” as epidemiologists put it: so we are not forced into such isolation that most of us are unable to mourn together.
My father died suddenly in a hospital two years ago, on March 9, from a case of pneumonia that turned into sepsis and caused further complications. The two weeks when his body was fighting sepsis were disorienting, timeless, traumatic, full of beeping machines and sunless rooms. His sudden turn for the worse came while he was with strangers; we never said goodbye. But his doctor was kind enough to let us go into the operating room where a team had tried to save his life: restarting his heart, ventilating him and more. When we saw his body, it looked small and alone, heartbreakingly so. But at least I have an image to hold on to, had a chance to touch his hand and whisper our love, the love that underpins grief and drives the living to mourn, through ritual and memory, the gulf between us and those who have gone. We know what is by marking the shape of what is lost; we do that by saying goodbye, together.
It was last summer that Bonnie Zampino first noticed something unusual about the wooded plot of land in the hills above this historical town.
Zampino, a case manager for recovering drug users who lives in the neighboring community of Bolivar, was used to encountering curiosities from the past on her hikes through Harpers Ferry, a town where history has left its imprint several times over. The village overlooking the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers is most famous for the failed anti-slavery raid led by abolitionist John Brown in 1859. It was also the site of a Civil War battle and hosted large contingents of Union and Confederate troops.
Zampino, 50, had made a hobby of her interest in abandoned rural properties, taking photographs and researching old land records. But the lonely section of woods to the west of Harpers Ferry’s historical downtown and national park were unlike anything she’d seen before. Thin, jagged slabs of stone stuck up in rows. There were bathtub-size depressions in the ground — what Zampino would later learn can be a sign of settling graves. A small, white footstone sat unsteadily in the earth, like a loose tooth.
She set out to learn more about the town-owned property. Records were scarce, but after months of archival sleuthing, Zampino developed a theory that this section of woods is a forgotten remnant of some of the nation’s darkest and bloodiest days. She thinks she has discovered a lost graveyard of Union dead.
Her hypothesis, at this point, is only that. Even if soldiers’ remains are buried at the site, the number of bodies is uncertain. Zampino’s detective work has been complicated by confusing and sometimes contradictory records from the years immediately after the Civil War, a time when many of the corpses left behind by America’s deadliest conflict were disinterred and — at least in the case of federal troops — moved to special resting places.
But Zampino has uncovered compelling documentary support for further investigation, including National Park Service and military records — some dating back 150 years — that point to a soldiers’ cemetery at the location in question and suggest it fell into neglect not long after the war ended.
“Whoever’s here, I’d like to know,” she said, standing at the site in Harpers Ferry on a recent afternoon. A narrow lane of cracked pavement runs through what Zampino believes to be the old cemetery. The ground was covered in matted leaves and fallen branches. “This shouldn’t look like this,” she said.
The roots of the mystery Zampino has been trying to solve lie in a largely forgotten epilogue to the Civil War. The American military has long prided itself on the faithfulness with which it recovers the remains of those who die in conflict. After the war’s end in 1865, that endeavor took place on a huge scale, with federal officials fanning out to battlefields to retrieve the bodies of soldiers, sometimes in advanced states of decomposition. Those remains were reburied in new national cemeteries.
The job, while harrowing, was deemed essential by the government and welcomed by relatives of the fallen.
“Words fail to describe the grateful relief that this work has brought to many a sorrowing household,” wrote David Wills, a lawyer who led the effort to create the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
John Frye, a local historian and curator of the Western Maryland Room at the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown, Md., said it was unlikely that the federal government could have overlooked a sizable number of bodies in Harpers Ferry during its retrieval efforts. Zampino said she believes anywhere from dozens to several hundred soldiers may have been interred at the site based on records she has reviewed.
“I can’t imagine the United States of America letting 300-some graves of Union soldiers go unmarked,” Frye said in an interview.
Zampino has gotten used to skepticism — or plain confusion: At the outset of her research project last year, most people seemed unaware that bodies had ever been buried at the site she discovered. “The more I couldn’t get information, the more I was like, ‘Man, I want to figure this out,’” she recalled.
She eventually discovered a 1959 National Park Service report that identified the plot as Pine Grove Cemetery, established in or around 1852. The report stated that “the cemetery was used as a burial ground during the Civil War.”
At the National Archives, Zampino discovered letters between military officials from 1866 to 1869 that discuss a “Citizens Cemetery” — separate from the other known cemeteries in Harpers Ferry — that she believes to be Pine Grove. An 1866 quartermaster general’s report says the cemetery “contains a number of soldiers graves, said to be not less than 75” that are “not distinguishable from citizens graves.”
Even then, however, confusion reigned over what the graveyard held.
In 1867, a military officer, responding to a request that the cemetery walls be rebuilt to protect the commingled grave plots of soldiers and civilians, replied that “all the bodies of U.S. soldiers interred at Harpers Ferry” had already been moved to Winchester National Cemetery in Virginia. Military records of the war dead from the time state that hundreds of soldiers’ bodies were moved from Harpers Ferry to Winchester between 1866 and 1867, but they are vague about what cemetery they came from. Zampino said they might have come from the more famous and centrally located Harper Cemetery.
At this point, Zampino said, the only way to resolve the questions raised by the documents is to conduct a physical examination of the site for graves and human remains. To that end, she is hoping to work with the Harpers Ferry Historic Landmarks Commission to apply for a grant that would fund ground-penetrating radar.
“I think it’s worth pursuing,” said Deborah McGee, the commission’s chairwoman.
If such research confirms the presence of soldiers’ remains, the National Cemetery Administration said, it “stands ready to provide government-furnished markers and/or grave space in a national cemetery.”
Whatever the outcome, Zampino said, she believes that after a century and a half, it’s time to solve the mystery of who rests in Pine Grove cemetery.
“There are people here,” she said. “And nobody knows who they are.”
A Neanderthal skeleton unearthed in an Iraqi cave already famous for fossils of these extinct cousins of our species is providing fresh evidence that they buried their dead — and intriguing clues that flowers may have been used in such rituals.
Last week, scientists said they had discovered in Shanidar Cave in the semiautonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq the well-preserved upper-body skeleton of an adult Neanderthal who lived about 70,000 years ago.
The individual — dubbed Shanidar Z — was perhaps in his or her 40s or 50s. The sex was undetermined.
The cave was a pivotal site for mid-20th-century archaeology. Remains of 10 Neanderthals — seven adults and three infants — were dug up there six decades ago, offering insight into the physical characteristics, behavior and diet of this species.
Clusters of flower pollen were found at that time in soil samples associated with one of the skeletons, a discovery that prompted scientists involved in that research to propose that Neanderthals buried their dead and conducted funerary rites with flowers.
That hypothesis helped change the prevailing popular view at the time of Neanderthals as dimwitted and brutish, a notion increasingly discredited by new discoveries.
Critics cast doubt, however, on the “flower burial,” arguing the pollen could have been modern contamination from people working and living in the cave or from burrowing rodents or insects.
But Shanidar Z’s bones, which appear to be the top half of a partial skeleton unearthed in 1960, were found in sediment containing ancient pollen and other mineralized plant remains, reviving the possibility of flower burials.
The material is being examined to determine its age and the plants represented.
“So from initially being a skeptic based on many of the other published critiques of the flower-burial evidence, I am coming round to think this scenario is much more plausible and I am excited to see the full results of our new analyzes,” said University of Cambridge osteologist and paleoanthropologist Emma Pomeroy, lead author of the research published in the journal Antiquity.
Scholars have argued for years about whether Neanderthals buried their dead with mortuary rituals much as our species does, part of the larger debate over their levels of cognitive sophistication.
“What is key here is the intentionality behind the burial. You might bury a body for purely practical reasons, in order to avoid attracting dangerous scavengers and/or to reduce the smell. But when this goes beyond practical elements it is important because that indicates more complex, symbolic and abstract thinking, compassion and care for the dead, and perhaps feelings of mourning and loss,” Pomeroy said.
Shanidar Z appears to have been deliberately placed in an intentionally dug depression cut into the subsoil and part of a cluster of four individuals.
“Whether the Neanderthal group of dead placed around 70,000 years ago in the cave were a few years, a few decades or centuries — or even millennia — apart, it seems clear that Shanidar was a special place, with bodies being placed just in one part of a large cave,” said study co-author Graeme Barker, a University of Cambridge archaeologist.
Neanderthals — more robustly built than Homo sapiens and with larger brows — inhabited Eurasia from the Atlantic Coast to the Ural Mountains from about 400,000 years ago until a bit after 40,000 years ago, disappearing after our species established itself in the region.
The two species interbred, with modern non-African human populations bearing residual Neanderthal DNA.
The sweeping scourge of the Black Death in 14th century England was so great it forced city-dwelling victims out to countryside hospitals, based on the tragic findings in a mass grave in Lincolnshire, England.
The remains of 48 people, including 21 children, were found at a previously unknown Black Death mass grave site at Thornton Abbey, according to a new study.
In less than two years, the Black Death claimed nearly half the lives of people in England between 1348 and 1349. Mass graves in England’s large Medieval cities have shown how overwhelmed they were. But small rural communities weren’t known to have these mass graves until now.
The 48 people in the mass grave were buried over a few days, but those at the medieval hospital attached to Thornton Abbey took the time to carefully wrap each person in a burial shroud and place them individually so they weren’t overlapping.
The study detailing the findings of the mass grave published Tuesday in the journal Antiquity.
“Later medieval Black Death cemeteries are surprisingly rare in England,” the authors of the study wrote. “The mass grave at Thornton Abbey is set apart from other 14th-century examples by its rural location and monastic association.”
The researchers believe that victims of the Black Death fled the overcrowded cities and overwhelmed hospitals there, only to die at the abbey and its hospital shortly after their journey.
An analysis of the teeth recovered from 16 of the remains revealed Yersinia pestis DNA, the pathogen for the Black Death. It’s the same strain from the outbreak that affected London, based on DNA recovered from mass graves there.
And because the grave site appears to have been disturbed at some point in its history, the researchers believe the mass grave may actually be larger and contain more Black Death victims.
Thornton Abbey was founded in 1139 in the Lincolnshire countryside and did well thanks to an association with the wool trade. Henry VIII closed it during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, and at its height, it was one of the richest.
“Medieval hospitals were religious institutions that provided a variety of services to the needy, including assisting pilgrims, providing alms to the poor and helping the sick and dying,” the authors wrote.
Archaeologists began to survey the area in 2011 and discovered earthworks, or human-made land modifications, which they thought represented what was left after a mansion was built on the property. Instead, they began to uncover multiple human remains.
The people were aged from one to 45 years old at time of death, with many of them between one and 17 years of age when they died. And although no babies younger than 12 months were found, the researchers believe the softer remains wouldn’t have been preserved.
Monasteries also struggled as emergency areas and cemeteries opened in the larger cities. About 11 miles from Thornton, Meux Abbey monks suffered from the Black Death and 80% of them died. This may have left Thornton as one of the only local options.
“To a society that valued ‘a good death’ above all else, the universal expectation would have been for the dead to be interred individually and with full church rites,” the study’s authors wrote.
Despite the dark time for the overwhelmed monastery, the care they took with burying the dead suggests how seriously they took their duties. Based on practices at the time, mass graves were seen as a failure of the system. But Thornton provided one of the last places where people could bring their “dead and dying to receive a proper burial and hope for salvation in the afterlife.”
“Although this reflects an acute historical tragedy, it also provides hitherto unseen details about the response of a small rural community to the devastation caused by the arrival of the Black Death,” the authors wrote. “The Thornton Abbey mass grave adds significantly to an understanding of the most deadly pandemic of the last millennium to have affected Europe.”
After Robert Alexander died at 51 during heart surgery in June 2018, after he was taken from the hospital to the facility that would recover the tissue and bone he had donated, he was brought to his uncle’s farm in Hinton, Okla., where his six siblings, his mother and other family members and friends had gathered to give him a home funeral.
They laid him out on a sturdy folding banquet table and dressed him in well-worn bluejeans, a Harley Davidson bandanna, a long-sleeved Affliction T-shirt and his black leather vest painted with the American flag. On the wall behind him, they hung a blanket emblazoned with a flaming skull.
A mechanic, Mr. Alexander had loved motorcycles, though his health and finances had kept him from being a regular rider. After he was properly adorned, and “looking pretty badass,” as his sister Tawnya Musser said, his siblings and their mother gathered around him, and a brother-in-law took a family photo using his smartphone.
“We couldn’t think of a time when all of us had been together with Mom,” Ms. Musser, 34, said. “So we had the conversation. Did Mom want a photo with all seven of her children and was it morbid that one of them was dead?”
There ended up being several photographs. They are startling and beautiful. Mr. Alexander looks peaceful and regal. The siblings have shared them among themselves, but the images don’t live on social media, as many contemporary death photos do.
In a collision of technology and culture, of new habits and very old ones, we are beginning to photograph our dead again.
For families like Mr. Alexander’s who are choosing home funerals and following natural death practices — D.I.Y. affairs that eschew the services of conventional funeral parlors — photography is an extension and celebration of that choice.
Family members are sitting with kin in hospice, or taking them home from hospitals, and continuing to care for them after they die, often washing their bodies and then adorning them, as Mr. Alexander’s family did, with favorite clothes, flowers, cards, books and other totems. They are sending their dead off as their grandparents used to, and recording the event and its aftermath with their smartphones.
“You can die in a way that has beauty attached,” said Amy Cunningham, 64, a funeral director in Brooklyn who specializes in “green” burials, without embalming or metal coffins, and assists families who are caring for their dead at home.
“The photograph seals the emotion,” Ms. Cunningham said. “And with cellular phones ever-present, we’re going to be recording all kinds of things we never did previously. Death is just one of them. Though when you’re Facebook posting and the images are wedged between the latest Trump atrocity and cats who look like Hitler it can be jarring.”
So, too, is the now common experience of seeing emoji applied to tragic events. Do you choose the weeping smiley face or just hit “like”?
The End of the Timeline
When Louise Rafkin posted a photo of her mother, Rhoda Rafkin, on Facebook the night of her death at 98 in September with her golden retriever at her side, it rattled some family members and friends.
Ms. Rafkin, 61, an author and martial arts teacher in Oakland, Calif., who is also a contributor to The New York Times, described how she and others had carried Rhoda outside to the garden she had loved. They transported her on an improvised stretcher, a surfboard borrowed from neighbors, and with help from their college-age sons.
Rhoda was dressed in a blue caftan and strewn with sunflowers, roses and gladioli. They tucked her into a sheet, lit candles and sat with her until it was dark. It is a lovely image, shot at the magic hour, as filmmakers like to say of the time just before dusk, but it shocks nonetheless.
“I was crazy about my mom and I wasn’t fazed by her being dead,” Ms. Rafkin said, noting that Rhoda, an educator, had been in hospice for more than six months. “I’ve been through the AIDS epidemic. I’m used to death. There are ways you can make this meaningful. Although I’m not religious, I am a deep believer in ritual and how that can heal and provide context.”
The Facebook post was a way to announce Rhoda’s death, Ms. Rafkin said, adding, “I’m pretty sure my mother would have disapproved, and that’s a tad unsettling. ‘No folderol,’ she said about the whole process.”
Some family members had mixed reactions. “I think what she did in the garden was beautiful,” said Ashley Peterson, 31, of Ms. Rafkin, who is her aunt. “But I felt like posting the photos could make people uncomfortable and leave an image in their minds they did not want to see. ”
Susan Sontag wrote that photography has its own ethics: It tells us what we are allowed to see and what’s taboo. (In the age of TikTok, these rules have evolved beyond all imagining.) If we are more familiar with the deaths of strangers, their violent ends captured by photojournalists, maybe that’s because the deaths of our intimates have been at a remove for so long.
There have been exceptions, of course, like the harrowing images that emerged during the AIDS epidemic from photographers like Therese Frare and artists like David Wojnarowicz, whose tender portraits of his friend and mentor Peter Hujar are holy-seeming and sacramental.
“In one sense it’s surprising because we’ve been so disconnected from death in the last century or so,” said Bess Lovejoy, the author of “Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses,” published in 2013, of the resurgence of home death photography. Ms. Lovejoy is also a member of the Order of the Good Death, an organization of funeral professionals, artists and scholars that prepare a culture generally in denial about death.
“But we are returning to the older ways,” she went on, “a movement backward that some say began in the ’70s, with the back-to-nature movement and midwifery and natural births. The natural death movement is part of that. And these photos are unsurprising, too, because we carry our smartphones all the time, and it’s almost like if there isn’t a photo it didn’t happen. Now everyone is a photographer.”
Modern photography was born in 1839, when Louis Daguerre refined a process for capturing an image on silver-plated copper. For decades, one of the most common uses of this new technology was the post-mortem photo: an artfully composed image, taken by a professional photographer, of dead family members in all manner of poses. Dead children in the laps of their parents, often with their eyes painted open; dead adults dressed in their finest clothes; even dead parents holding their living children; or entire families, wiped out by diseases like cholera, typhoid or diphtheria, nestled together in bed.
These were prized mementos, most often the only photograph that was ever taken of the subject, said Stanley B. Burns, 81, the quirky ophthalmologist behind the Burns Archive, a collection of post-mortem and medical photos, among other intriguing photographic genres, stored in a chockablock townhouse in Midtown Manhattan.
The photos in Dr. Burns’s “Sleeping Beauty” books (there are three) are both ghoulish and gorgeous. Dr. Burns pointed out that the subjects tended to look pretty good, because the plagues that felled them did so quickly.
The images have been inspiration and provided material for collectors and Victoriana enthusiasts like Joanna Ebenstein, 48, a writer and curator who was a founder of the idiosyncratic Morbid Anatomy Museum, now closed, in Brooklyn. “Post-mortem photographs can be seen as a Western form of ancestor veneration,” said Ms. Ebenstein, a practice that began to decline when death was outsourced to the clinical environments of hospitals and funeral homes, “and it became taboo to talk about.”
(In 1910, Ladies’ Home Journal rebranded the parlor, where Americans had been laying out their dead for nearly a century, as “the living room” and the nascent funeral industry took the word “parlor” for its activities.)
But what really curtailed post-mortem photography and the elaborate mourning rituals behind it, according to Dr. Burns, was World War I. “There was so much death,” he said. “If everyone is mourning, you lose your fighting spirit. It’s not patriotic.”
“What’s happening now is that people are taking back that process,” Dr. Burns continued. “But the impulse to photograph is the same as it was for the Victorians. They want to show they have seen their person through to the end. ‘I’ve done this work, I’ve loved her to the end.’ It’s your last bond, and you want to document that.”
As the funeral industry slowly evolves from Big Casket to include a cadre of overwhelmingly female and digitally native professionals with all manner of titles (end of life teachers, death doulas and others), they are displaying their work, with humor and photographs, on social media.
Their message: Get comfortable with death, it doesn’t have to be so scary, and here are photos to prove it.
They share images of the dead attended by family members in their beds, or shrouded in natural fabrics cinched with rope at a grave site. They perform death themselves, as Melissa Unfred, 41, a natural mortician based in Austin, Texas, sometimes does, lying in shallow graves strewn with flowers and turf. Ms. Unfred, who sells “Cremate the Patriarchy” T-shirts on Etsy, is the Mod Mortician of Twitter and Instagram, one of many evangelists for the so-called Death Positive movement.
Caitlin Doughty, 35, a funeral director who describes herself as a mortician activist and funeral industry rabble rouser, recently re-enacted a Victorian-style post-mortem photo shoot with a tintype photographer at the Merchant House Museum in Manhattan, and shared it on YouTube.
Ms. Doughty is the founder of the Order of the Good Death and the author of “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?” published last September, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory” and other jauntily titled books designed to demystify death. With her Bettie Page crop, she is an avatar of the goth-inflected sub-tribe of death professionals.
“It’s not like no one never took a photo of Mom in the coffin,” Ms. Doughty said. “I have pictures of my grandparents in their caskets fully embalmed. But the sense of ownership has changed. It’s not, ‘Mom is handed to the funeral parlor and they do something behind the scenes and sell the body back to you.’ Sure, you could take photos but it’s like a statue in a museum. The product of someone else’s art. My sense of why we are seeing more and more photos of these natural bodies is because the families have prepared them themselves, they’ve done a job together and they are proud of their work.”
Ms. Doughty advises families on home death rituals and best practices, like how to keep the dead cool with packs of dry ice. “One family texted me photos as they worked, though not to say, ‘How are we doing?’ but, ‘Look how beautiful.’ I think people have this fear that Mom is going to be this otherworldly creepy thing, and then when that doesn’t happen, they want to capture it.”
Ms. Cunningham, the funeral director in Brooklyn, recalled addressing a group of Unitarians in Albany a few years ago, and saying that she wasn’t sure she would want to be viewed, post-mortem, by her friends and family. That she would prefer to be looking her best. A nonagenarian yelled out, quite sharply, as she remembered, “‘You’ll get over that!’”
“And that got me thinking,” Ms. Cunningham said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to die unfettered and free from worrying about how I look?”
Cancer patients and others with terminal illnesses have long used photos and videos to bear witness to their suffering and make visible that which is considered off limits — on blogs, Twitter and now TikTok — and have encouraged family members and friends to do so on their behalf when they are no longer able to, pushing visual and emotional boundaries well beyond what may be considered comfortable.
As in the Victorian era, post-mortem photographs of children have a terrible urgency and mission. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is an organization of volunteer photographers who make “remembrance portraits” of babies, often of the child in their parent’s arms, to assist in the grieving process.
Oliver Wasow, a photographer, recalled the agonizing images a friend shared last summer of her son’s death to cancer at age 8 on Instagram and Facebook, documenting her child’s devastating decline, and then her own grief.
It was shattering to see — “You couldn’t ‘like” the photos,” Mr. Wasow said — but he recognized the value it had for his friend. Some people, he noted, say the difference between analog photography and digital photography is that digital photography is a kind of activity, versus analog photographs, which are documents.
“When you throw in social media, it becomes a record of a process rather than a record of a person. Yet the purpose remains the same whether it’s the 19th century or the 21st,” Mr. Wasow said. “It’s about documenting the transition from a physical body to a memory.”
There are gentler ways to memorialize the process of dying than a portrait of a face with the life drained from it. Lashanna Williams, 40, a massage therapist and death doula in Seattle, has been making portraits of her dying clients, with their permission, to share with family members if they ask for them.
She captures the area between a forefinger and thumb, or the calluses of someone’s hands. Wrinkles, she likes to say, are containers for memories and lived experience. She may take a photo of the crepey skin on an arm, or a scar, and sometimes she layers those images with photo collages made from leaves or flowers. The images are both abstract and intimate.
The aesthetic and language of modern post-mortem photography is not all fabric shrouds and flower petals, however. Monica Torres, 42, is a desairologist (the term for hair and makeup stylists who work on the dead) and embalmer in Phoenix with a sassy Twitter handle, @Coldhandshosts. Her specialty is trauma, and she relies on conventional methods to make decedents look like themselves again.
“I cannot create a positive, lasting memory for families without the chemicals and tools that I use,” Ms. Torres said. The families of her clients often ask her to take photos, or gather at a coffin for a selfie, she added.
An educator, she also shares her work in vivid photos on her website. “Now that the death-positive movement is in full effect,” she said, “families are beginning to show interest, and documenting their journey through grief is a powerful tool to use toward acceptance. We want to empower families with education about what it is we actually do and how our dark art is valuable.”
Bam Truesdale, 37, a hair and makeup stylist in Charlotte, N.C., has been preparing decedents for funeral parlors for 10 years. When his mother, Cynthia Cummings, died at 61 in 2016, he worked on her, too. As is his habit with all the people he prepares, he put earphones in his mother’s ears, and played her gospel music, though he worked in silence.
After Mr. Truesdale had made his mother up and done her hair, pinning a white feather and rhinestone fascinator to her curls, he smoothed her dress, adjusted her stockings and picked her up, placing her gently in her coffin.
He captured the entire process with his Android phone, though when he paused to kiss her face all over, as he used to do when she was alive, the colleague he’d brought from work to help him if he faltered took the phone from him and snapped those photos herself. Afterward, he uploaded the images to a Google drive and did not look at them again until the last week of January.
“I started feeling emotional that day,” he said, “and something in my head told me, I think it was her, that I had never shared her like she asked me to.” When Ms. Cummings was dying, she made Mr. Truesdale promise that he would make sure no one would forget her. Mr. Truesdale said, “I was going back and forth, ‘Maybe I should? Maybe I shouldn’t? People are going to think I’m weird.'”
It was evening when Mr. Truesdale posted his dead mother’s photos on Facebook. He awoke the next morning to find his phone lit up with thousands of comments and notifications. Many people asked if he could make the post public, so he did. By the end of the day, 25,000 people had “liked” the post, and it had been shared more than 15,000 times.
Among the more than 4,000 comments, the most common were that Ms. Cummings looked beautiful, and that Mr. Truesdale had done a wonderful job caring for her. Strangers wrote that they wished they could have had a similar experience with their own family members.
His three siblings thanked him, too. “They didn’t know they wanted to see the pictures,” he said. “But they did.”
It may seem paradoxical, but dying can be a deeply creative process.
Public figures, authors, artists and journalists have long written about their experience of dying. But why do they do it and what do we gain?
Many stories of dying are written to bring an issue or disease to public attention.
For instance, English editor and journalist Ruth Picardie’s description of terminal breast cancer, so poignantly described in Before I say Goodbye, drew attention to the impact of medical negligence, and particularly misdiagnosis, on patients and their families.
American tennis player and social activist Arthur Ashe wrote about his heart disease and subsequent diagnosis and death from AIDS in Days of Grace: A Memoir.
His autobiographical account brought public and political attention to the risks of blood transfusion (he acquired HIV from an infected blood transfusion following heart bypass surgery).
Other accounts of terminal illness lay bare how people navigate uncertainty and healthcare systems, as surgeon Paul Kalanithi did so beautifully in When Breath Becomes Air, his account of dying from lung cancer.
American writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak drew people he loved as they were dying; founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, while in great pain, refused pain medication so he could be lucid enough to think clearly about his dying; and author Christopher Hitchens wrote about dying from oesophageal cancer despite increasing symptoms:
I want to stare death in the eye.
Faced with terminal cancer, renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, if possible, more prolifically than before.
And Australian author Clive James found dying a mine of new material:
Few people read
Poetry any more but I still wish
To write its seedlings down, if only for the lull
Of gathering: no less a harvest season
For being the last time.
Research shows what dying artists have told us for centuries – creative self-expression is core to their sense of self. So, creativity has therapeutic and existential benefits for the dying and their grieving families.
Creativity provides a buffer against anxiety and negative emotions about death.
Creativity may give voice to our experiences and provide some resilience as we face disintegration. It may also provide agency (an ability to act independently and make our own choices), and a sense of normality.
French doctor Benoit Burucoa wrote art in palliative care allows people to feel physical and emotional relief from dying, and:
[…] to be looked at again and again like someone alive (without which one feels dead before having disappeared).
A way of communicating to loved ones and the public
When someone who is dying creates a work of art or writes a story, this can open up otherwise difficult conversations with people close to them.
But where these works become public, this conversation is also with those they do not know, whose only contact is through that person’s writing, poetry or art.
This public discourse is a means of living while dying, making connections with others, and ultimately, increasing the public’s “death literacy”.
Some people read narratives of dying to gain insight into this mysterious experience, and empathy for those amidst it. Some read it to rehearse their own journeys to come.
But these purpose-oriented explanations miss what is perhaps the most important and unique feature of literature – its delicate, multifaceted capacity to help us become what philosopher Martha Nussbaumdescribed as:
Not everyone, however, has the opportunity for creative self-expression at the end of life. In part, this is because increasingly we die in hospices, hospitals or nursing homes. These are often far removed from the resources, people and spaces that may inspire creative expression.
And in part it is because many people cannot communicate after a stroke or dementia diagnosis, or are delirious, so are incapable of “last words” when they die.
Perhaps most obviously, it is also because most of us are not artists, musicians, writers, poets or philosophers. We will not come up with elegant prose in our final days and weeks, and lack the skill to paint inspiring or intensely beautiful pictures.
But this does not mean we cannot tell a story, using whatever genre we wish, that captures or at least provides a glimpse of our experience of dying – our fears, goals, hopes and preferences.
[…] there will still be epic poems, because every human life contains one. It comes out of nowhere and goes somewhere on its way to everywhere – which is nowhere all over again, but leaves a trail of memories. There won’t be many future poets who don’t dip their spoons into all that, even if nobody buys the book.