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Slipping the mortal coil
April 1, 2008 8:41 AM   Subscribe

Life Before Death - (from the site) "This sombre series of portraits taken of people before and after they had died is a challenging and poignant study. The work by German photographer Walter Schels and his partner Beate Lakotta, who recorded interviews with the subjects in their final days, reveals much about dying - and living."
posted by blue_beetle (67 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
(via)
posted by blue_beetle at 8:43 AM on April 1, 2008


I was just looking at these via the post at BB. The pictures really run the gamut -- some of the people look very dead indeed in their "after" shot and others could be just sleeping.
posted by briank at 8:52 AM on April 1, 2008


not dead, pining!
posted by blue_beetle at 8:53 AM on April 1, 2008


Bummer of a post.
posted by Daddy-O at 8:54 AM on April 1, 2008


I made it through about half of those before feeling too sad to look at any more.
posted by brain_drain at 9:01 AM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


The captions are even more powerful than the photos, IMO. Wonderful post, blue_beetle, thanks.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:04 AM on April 1, 2008


Truly Best of the Web. Best of more than the Web.
posted by illiad at 9:05 AM on April 1, 2008


Beautiful.
posted by ColdChef at 9:07 AM on April 1, 2008


Wow. I hope when my time comes I'm as philosophical about it as some of these people.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:18 AM on April 1, 2008


Bummer of a post

Try starting at the end and going backwards.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:19 AM on April 1, 2008 [6 favorites]


.
posted by Senator at 9:20 AM on April 1, 2008


Amazing, original work. These portrait pairs must be very comforting to surviving loved ones. I would want this done for me when my time comes. Unless it's a rotten.com type of ending, of course.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:22 AM on April 1, 2008


Excellent photos, but I prefer the more visceral and documentary approach of Stan Brakhage's The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes [NSFW]. The reason I like Brakhage's treatment better is that the bodies you see are the opposite of prettified, removed of all personality. The bodies have no persons associated with them. You get to see dead bodies in the natural state, which is something that rarely happens IRL, despite how commonplace death is.

Of course, these folks are going for a different approach, but in a way it isn't much different that seeing a ColdCheffed corpse in the funeral home. After seeing Brakhage's work, I felt that the deliberate observation of the natural state of a dead body does more to honor the deceased than the preservation of the body and making it up to look alive. Not to knock ColdChef's profession; most people probably aren't equipped to take a gander at their loved one looking very very dead. So funeral homes and photography like this act as a good buffer that allows folks to confront death in a manner that they can handle.
posted by sciurus at 9:22 AM on April 1, 2008


Is it just Firefox or do none of the initial quotes feature periods at the end?

Neat post, otherwise.
posted by lumensimus at 9:23 AM on April 1, 2008


The one that most moved me was the one about Rita Schoffler (the one who reconciled with her ex-husband after 20 years).

Others talked about wanting to live; others were angry; others collapsed into despair.

I've got a bit more time left than they did; what should I do to really live? What would you do?

.
posted by WalterMitty at 9:23 AM on April 1, 2008


Helpful reminders.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:26 AM on April 1, 2008


> I've got a bit more time left than they did

Ah, but that's the thing...we never know for sure, do we?
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:26 AM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


Wow. I looked at two and started crying. I'm sitting here typing through my tears.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:28 AM on April 1, 2008


While I'm down with the concept of memento mori, I have to say, I think these photos are just voyeuristic and, literally, of value only to the morbidly curious.
posted by Dave Faris at 9:31 AM on April 1, 2008


Thanks you, these pictures and quotes are very powerful.
posted by Glow Bucket at 9:32 AM on April 1, 2008


That was so very difficult to get through but I am glad I did.
posted by pookzilla at 9:34 AM on April 1, 2008


I cried as well, actually. I think my tears sprung in large part from the realization that my mid-20s self, the pedant who can look down upon a person for holding a firm belief in the afterlife (which I still feel is likely a self-deception), has finally died.

Since my early 20s, every work of art that has changed the way I perceive other folks' belief structures has only served to further my cynicism. This one has done quite the opposite. Thanks to the poster and to the artist.
posted by nosila at 9:37 AM on April 1, 2008


Fascinating and frightening. Many of these people were openly resentful at what had happened to them (who could blame them?), some were understandably frightened. I expected this to be a trite photo project with a "See how serene the ones who accepted death look? Like they are at peace," but instead there is real emotion here.

Great FPP.
posted by misha at 9:38 AM on April 1, 2008


My mother-in-law's hospice nurse made the movie Solace: Wisdom of the dying. I am a little too close to have an objective opinion but I found it a moving and helpful exploration on what it means to die.
posted by pointilist at 9:44 AM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


That was so very difficult to get through but I am glad I did.

Sounds like a quote from the 2nd part of each person's portrait.

It is always amazing to compare pictures like this. Other than ceased cell function the form remains the same, but beyond that, something undefinable is missing. If we could all treasure that undefinable in our life in the same manner as the terminally ill.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 9:45 AM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


My girlfriend spent about 6 months working in palliative care as a nurse and she would recount stories like this on a daily basis. She found the whole experience of working with dying people very rewarding and satisfying, but the emotional cost in the long run was too much and she moved on to other work. Just reading these stories makes my heart break: I could never do what palliative care nurses do on a daily basis.
posted by slimepuppy at 9:47 AM on April 1, 2008


Thank you for bringing this here.

Beautiful, in the way that life as a whole is, ultimately.
posted by batmonkey at 9:48 AM on April 1, 2008


Really good post. I was fascinated, but it was depressing how relatively young many of those people were.
posted by TedW at 9:51 AM on April 1, 2008


I looked out of morbid curiosity and I wish I hadn't. I not only feel upset, I feel nauseous as well. Not out of disgust, just out of sadness.

I suppose I should have known better, if I had thought about how horrified post mortem portraits from the 1800's used to make me.
posted by tastybrains at 10:00 AM on April 1, 2008


The one person I felt the most sad for was Gerda:
Gerda couldn’t believe that cancer was cheating her of her hard-earned retirement. “My whole life was nothing but work, work, work,” she told me. She had worked on the assembly line in a soap factory, and had brought up her children single-handedly. “Does it really have to happen now? Can’t death wait?” she sobbed.

On one visit Gerda said, “It won’t be long now”, and was panic-stricken. Her daughter tried to console her, saying: “Mummy, we’ll all be together again one day.” “That’s impossible,’ Gerda replied. “Either you’re eaten by worms or burned to ashes.” “But what about your soul?” her daughter pleaded. “Oh, don’t talk to me about souls”, said her mother in an accusing tone. “Where is God now?”
Enjoy life now, folks.
posted by JDHarper at 10:01 AM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


"Gerda couldn’t believe that cancer was cheating her of her hard-earned retirement. “My whole life was nothing but work, work, work,” she told me. She had worked on the assembly line in a soap factory, and had brought up her children single-handedly. “Does it really have to happen now? Can’t death wait?” she sobbed."

What a punch in the gut.
posted by Alison at 10:01 AM on April 1, 2008


Don't think anything on the internet has made me cry before. As in big fat fucking tears rolling down my face. Just wow.
posted by jontyjago at 10:11 AM on April 1, 2008


The ultimate Before and After photos.
posted by hal9k at 10:14 AM on April 1, 2008


There's no such thing as a "typical death", is there? When my mother died of cancer in the early 70s they just gave her so much morphine she was pretty much not there at all. I never got a chance to say good bye or find out how she felt, whether she knew what was happening. With today's care, that might not be the case. I can't decide if that's better or worse.
posted by tommasz at 10:15 AM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is great, thanks for sharing it. Death is just ... what it is, it's a part of everything else, so why not look at it? My grandmother died and my mom took a photo of her body with her cell phone. She was embarrassed for having done that, but I was really glad to be able to see what her body had looked like after she herself had left. It makes you better appreciate the magic of life.
posted by salvia at 10:31 AM on April 1, 2008


Very moving, thanks.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:48 AM on April 1, 2008


I found it hard to look at these too. Probably because my sister in law died in a traffic accident last year at age 42, and it reminded me of seeing her in the casket.
posted by Devils Slide at 10:59 AM on April 1, 2008


So many of them seem utterly at peace in the "after" pictures. It almost makes me think that what Tolkien wrote about the death of men in the Silmarillion might be right: it just might be a gift from the gods, to finally be free of the world.
posted by lord_wolf at 12:06 PM on April 1, 2008


I couldn't bear it after the third or fourth one, especially once I started reading the captions. This is a fantastic project and a great FPP but it's just a little too personal for me right now at work.
posted by ooga_booga at 12:16 PM on April 1, 2008


.
posted by putzface_dickman at 12:33 PM on April 1, 2008


"Gerda couldn’t believe that cancer was cheating her of her hard-earned retirement. “My whole life was nothing but work, work, work,” she told me. She had worked on the assembly line in a soap factory, and had brought up her children single-handedly. “Does it really have to happen now? Can’t death wait?” she sobbed."

I knew a guy (he lived on the street where I parked my car) who got cancer a few months after he retired. When he first retired he was so excited about the things he was going to do with all his spare time. The last time I saw him, his skin was shrivelled up and yellow (he had liver cancer) and he didn't even recognize me. Next thing I knew his house was for sale.

.

And for the rest of us... well, I was going to say something to the tune of "appreciate life today" but I figure someone a thousand times more eloquent and talented than me will say it better. So I leave it to you, whoever you are.
posted by bitteroldman at 12:34 PM on April 1, 2008


I walked into my grandmother's room when I was nine or so, and she was in the bed, dead.

Oddly enough my young mind did not consciously realise she was dead, but she looked...different. Not just asleep (I had been sent to wake her up.)

I backed out of the room and went to find my mom(who was at the neighbors' reporting the death-grandma had no phone and her own elderly mom and my birth grandma (her sister, and the woman whose name is my username) were in the house-mom was terrified that they would have a heart attack or something themselves if she told them-and they had been the ones to send me into the room. )

Looking at these photos was kinda like that.
posted by konolia at 1:06 PM on April 1, 2008


Thanks. A wise and worthy project.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:06 PM on April 1, 2008


What a wonderful piece, the whole thing. I wish the article explaining the author/photographer interviews with the people was longer, I would like to hear more of those stories.

I've always wondered about the response of the immediate family that this article mentions, as I'm currently dealing with this right now. My grandmother is currently dying of cancer and the part that bothers me the most is this "you're gonna be just fine" kind of treatment that she gets from most who come to visit. I know it is difficult for many to be around such a saddening environment and that is probably the reason people want to separate themselves from the dying, especially for close family members who almost can't bare the thought and don't want to break apart in front of the person, because their afraid it'll upset that person at a time when this could be detrimental to some miracle recovery that won't happen if the person even hears the word "death".

I suspect it is the completely opposite, however. I always got the feeling that this patronizing and somewhat delusional treatment is the last thing these people want. This piece reaffirmed my theory and helped me realize that although you don't have to dwell on it, one must at least talk to the people who are dying on a serious level. Breaking down in front of someone who has come to terms with her death is hardly going to break her spirit, in fact it will probably be uncomfortable at first, but afterward will most likely be one of the most comfortable times with that person that one could ever have, and the most important.
posted by hellslinger at 1:18 PM on April 1, 2008


We have the gift and the burden of foreknowledge about the inevitability of our own impending death, but for all that, it is difficult for us to gaze on it, think on it, be close to it. The denial impulse is a strong one, like looking at the sun, we have to turn away. And when we do think on it, death is often considered from the vantage of it happening to someone else.

What seems powerful about this project is the intimacy of the portraits and the brief statements, putting us very close to the reality of things. I can't help but think "how would I react?" and "what would I do?" These portraits make death feel very personal and up close. That's part of the discomfort these engender - we all like to keep the illusion of distance.

I found the two stories where people had graveside revealations very touching: Finding the ability to forgive in the 11th hour and the comfort it brought was one, and the other that moved me:
“It’s absurd really. It’s only now that I have cancer that, for the first time ever, I really want to live,” Roswitha told me on one of my visits, a few weeks after she had been admitted to the hospice. "They’re really good people here,” she said. “I enjoy every day that I’m still here. Before this my life wasn’t a happy one."

These make me think about what things undone I would be trying to do, what regrets I had I would be trying to redress, or what loose ends there are that I would be trying to tie up were I to learn my time is very limited. Why do we so often live like we have forever to do those things? These people poignantly remind us we don't. The Card Cheat, you nailed it. Today could very well be our day.

hellslinger, I agree with so much of what you said. I've had the terrible yet blessed privilege of being close to a few wonderful people during their prolonged progression to death, playing a small role in helping them to ease the passage. It is such an intimate time to be with someone, perhaps the most intimate time of all.

The only real lesson that I have ever learned is to love the people around me more and to tell them so often. I think I've learned that one well enough, I am ready for the gods to stop with giving me periodic remedial lessons.
posted by madamjujujive at 2:02 PM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


All we are is beautiful meat. It's best to put that out our heads most of the time. Really. It is. Worrying and fretting about death never helped anybody.

There is interesting research that concludes the most successful people on the planet, the most happy, and the ones that live the longest are the most self deceived.

Occasionally you gotta take stock and it's useful to realize that you are meat. And meat doesn't keep forever. And if there is anything you want to do in this world don't wait. You will never get any more time than you have ... right... now.
posted by tkchrist at 2:04 PM on April 1, 2008


Nice post. It reminds me of Haunted When It Rains: A Book Of The Dead. I didn't find this one nearly so sad though. Haunted when It Rains is a selection of Victorian memento mori photographs, many of children and often propped up as if they're alive and just sitting with someone. No explanations though so your imagination is allowed to run wild. Incredibly sad. If you couldn't make it through Life Before Death don't go look at Haunted When it Rains. I grew up with several postmortem pictures in our family album and they always fascinated me. Guess I never grew out of it.
posted by BoscosMom at 2:11 PM on April 1, 2008


Great post. Thanks for this.
posted by generalist at 3:30 PM on April 1, 2008


I like the idea, but I have to admit I feel pretty blase about the execution.
posted by whoaali at 3:42 PM on April 1, 2008


I can't find that excellent AskMe about how to talk to a dying friend. It was sidebarred. Anyway, I'd like to look at it again in light of this post. Anyone able to dig it up please?
posted by marble at 3:42 PM on April 1, 2008


I just needed to try a little harder. Here it is.
posted by marble at 3:44 PM on April 1, 2008


Gerda broke my heart. And then Peter. And then Klara. I'm an utter crybaby, but it isn't often my heart actually hurts. Something about those disappointments really put an ache in my chest. (A life of hard work for a retirement that won't come, perfect health record suddenly and mortally broken, and then "And I’d only just bought myself a new fridge-freezer!").

For whatever reason seeing the total slide count of 22 and realizing the number was even because it was a pair of pictures-- one before death and one after for each person-- was actually what made the idea sink in more. There's no odd man out on this one, I guess.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 3:47 PM on April 1, 2008


"Gerda couldn’t believe that cancer was cheating her of her hard-earned retirement. “My whole life was nothing but work, work, work,” she told me. She had worked on the assembly line in a soap factory, and had brought up her children single-handedly. “Does it really have to happen now? Can’t death wait?” she sobbed."

I seem to be going through a mid-life crisis right now, and this just flat out got to me. All the hours spent working are beginning to bother me as they seem like currency that I have no choice but to spend. Of course I am providing for my family and have a lot of nice things, but what is it to spend most of your life doing things for some company and to get to the end having lost yourself?
posted by UseyurBrain at 4:16 PM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]


As long as we are looking at heartrending photos reflecting the inevitable, this is Derek Madsen.
posted by arruns at 4:43 PM on April 1, 2008 [4 favorites]


I thought, also, when I read these that I recognized the name in Maria's background on her beliefs: "Supreme Master (Mistress?) Ching Hai". We've seen a post about this person (group?) previously.

Is it bad that it upsets me a little bit that Ching Hai seems to be what gave her so much courage in the face of death? I suppose it's just the cult-type feel of the organization that gives me the heebie-jeebies to this extent. I should probably be a little more grateful that the woman could deal with her own death peacefully at all, regardless of the reason.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 6:21 PM on April 1, 2008


arruns, you just completely destroyed my composure. That Derek Madsen pictorial has me sobbing. It's so well done but jaysus.
posted by h00py at 6:38 PM on April 1, 2008


I've been lurking here for years and have only posted a few times.

I found this FPP very interesting, in part because I'm helping a neighbor who was just diagnosed with lung cancer. And, in part, because I had a life-threatening accident a few years ago, was more or less bedridden for two years and had occasion to contemplate my own death.

I didn't find the pictures or commentary sad at all. I admired the philosophical ones and felt less respect, actually no respect, for the complainers.

Great post; thank you.
posted by Marygwen at 6:45 PM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


I simply cannot begin to comprehend the unbearable heartbreak of losing a child - that Derek Madsen pictorial just broke me to pieces. I am sitting here typing, tears rolling down my face. That picture near the end where the mother is repeating those words over and over to her little man ... oh, my heart is breaking.
posted by kcds at 7:44 PM on April 1, 2008


I'm gonna go kiss my sleeping son and daughter right now. Thank you for posting this, and for the link to the Derek Madsen set. Wow.
posted by kcds at 7:45 PM on April 1, 2008


that Derek Madsen pictorial just broke me to pieces.

Ditto to that, kcds. That is an amazing set of photos, and looking at those was one of the most intense experiences I've had recently. The only way I can describe that is like some sort of emotional goatse, except that instead of letting out an instinctual "Argh!" I'm going to go curl up into a fetal position and fall asleep in a puddle of my own salty tears. Maybe it hits you harder if you have kids?
posted by Dr. Zira at 9:01 PM on April 1, 2008


Very nice. Thanks for this blue_beetle. "Maybe it hits you harder if you have kids?" It's just numbing when you've lost one.
posted by arse_hat at 10:36 PM on April 1, 2008


Be kind to others. They are grieving a death.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 11:34 PM on April 1, 2008


The original FPP on Derek and his mom.

<>
posted by aclevername at 11:42 PM on April 1, 2008


Excellent post. Thanks very much for sharing.
posted by puddinghead at 12:03 AM on April 2, 2008


I admired the philosophical ones and felt less respect, actually no respect, for the complainers.

You can't blame people for being angry about death. Everyone reacts differently. What could be more personal than facing your own end?
posted by Locative at 1:28 AM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]


I never got a chance to say good bye or find out how she felt, whether she knew what was happening. With today's care, that might not be the case. I can't decide if that's better or worse.

This still plagues me at times about my dad, too. They put him in a coma that he expected to return from, but in the end he didn't, they just turned off the machines.
I felt then - and still largely do now - that this was best for him. What would have been the point of a tearful scene of "hello we've just taken you out of your coma to let you know you're dying and to hug you one last time"?

But then there are days where I wonder if we have cheated him (and ourselves) of a proper goodbye. And if he would've preferred encountering death knowingly. I will never know.

Anyway, this is a truly great post.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 4:59 AM on April 2, 2008


Heartbreaking.

A long time friend of my husband retired after many years of being a mechanic. He had a stroke about two months into retirement. He lived another two years and died last year. So fucking unfair.
posted by deborah at 2:03 PM on April 2, 2008


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