“The meaning of life is that it stops.” ~ Franz Kafka
When I lost my step son (I hate saying “step”—he was my son) in 2004 to suicide on a day much like today—an ordinary winter afternoon, our neighborhood an arctic wasteland, all the kids at home, the house zipped up tight against the cold—life as I’d known it ended.
What followed was earth shattering grief—earth shattering; such a perfect way to describe how we all felt. My family, our world and every single thing in it imploded and exploded in a single moment, and we are still sorting through the wreckage. Our insides look like pictures of hurricane aftermath, destruction as far as the eye can see in an oddly defined swath, outside the margins of which everything remains untouched.
Death happens to everyone and it happens all the time. Why is it so hard to process?
I had never known anyone besides a grandparent who died before Bobby. I was only vaguely acquainted with the endless rituals of death, all designed to force the mind of the living from one reality to another. And it does need forcing, we are so resistant to change.
When I first saw Bobby after he died, he was on a hospital gurney. People often say the dead “look like they’re sleeping” and in this case it was true. There was absolutely nothing in his physical appearance which would have indicated this boy was not alive—until we touched him.
It wasn’t just the temperature of his body that felt wrong, but the density. Somehow it seemed that underneath those worn out jeans I’d washed 80 millions times, his flesh had turned to dense mud, or lunar rock submerged in metric tons of water. It was as if he was in a different gravitational field than the rest of us, his body being anchored and pulled down by an unfathomable weight.
The next time I saw him he was lying in a casket. The jeans were gone and he was in the good suit we had bought him to wear to prom. His hair was uncharacteristically neat, his face painted. The make up the funeral home applied had the converse effect than was intended; it made him look more dead.
It struck me then, perhaps because I was raised Protestant rather than Catholic like my husband’s family and thus had never been to an open casket funeral before, how truly bizarre the whole affair was. What were we trying to achieve by arranging our son’s body in such a way? By putting it on public display?
I will never forget the surrepticious photographs of Bobby I saw a few mourners snap with their cell phones as they passed through to pay their respects. It didn’t make me mad, (though it did make me uncomfortable)—I empathized.
We were all just trying to comprehend; what is death?
When I saw these strange Victorian death portraits, that day and those feelings all came rushing back. I hesitated to share these images or write about this subject at all, worrying that it would be perceived as gratuitous, relevant only for it’s shock value. But I think they represent an important rite of passage that all people must endure; the struggle to accept death.
In these pictures, I see myself, my family and Bobby’s friends. Caught off guard by death, trying in vain to grasp at one last moment when the deceased are with us in this realm, before we release them forever into an abyss of unanswered questions.
Death portraiture may seem like a bizarre custom, but it is simply another example of the human mind trying to accept the unacceptable—to move forward in the uncertain tides of life where the only thing we know for sure is that this time of ours on earth is finite.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise