The first dead body that I remember seeing outside of a funeral home was my paternal grandmother's. My grandparents moved into our house when they were in their nineties so my parents could help with their care. She died in our home. I remember seeing my grandmother in her casket; her hands folded neatly, one on top of the other. I remember vividly the way that her hands looked, the skin seemed slightly flat and waxy. I remember being annoyed that she was wearing pink lipstick instead of her standard red. I don't have any end of life pictures of my paternal grandmother or grandfather. During the final moments of their lives, it was as if no one wanted to take pictures of them because their hair wasn't done just right or they didn't look like they used to. There's nothing to document the experiences of our family and the feelings of loss during that period.
Recently, I've read two fantastic articles about death photography making a comeback. The first, speaking to the use of modern technology and death photography, can be read here. The second, here, speaks to the hands-on preparation of a loved one and his recent post-mortem pictures (which are lovingly and respectfully done - the image of his hands is my favorite). These pictures, these moments, represent the absolute last moments that we will ever have with people who have meant the world to us. In the first article, "The iPhone at the Deathbed" an interesting point is made about hospice photography:
An educator, she [Ms. Torres] 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.”
We talked about Scotland, about Edinburgh, a city that he had loved when he was stationed there in the 1950s. We talked about the house that he left for me, my sister, and my cousin. We talked about the old Persian tux cat that he'd had when we were growing up named Mr. Kimble (after the cat's original owner, one of their neighbors who passed away, Mr. Kimble). I told him, "I'm going to take our picture," and I got up at set my phone to a timer. "Now?" He'd asked - this wasn't going to make a great picture. We were crying; we weren't smiling, "Yes, now." I remember how tired he looked, and I asked him if he wanted me to go. "No," he'd told me, holding my hands tighter. When I look at this picture I remember my grandfather and me telling each other how much we loved each other. When I look at this picture that's what I think of - holding his hands so tightly because this man that I loved so, so much was going away and this was one of the last chances that I would have to tell him I loved him and to hear it back, and I knew it.
The second picture, the one on the right, was taken at the end of October, five days before he died. My mother and I made the trip to see him, as we had every weekend, and we brought a few magazines to read. My grandfather loved magazines and learning new things; he was an avid reader. My grandfather read to me often when I was growing up and I couldn't. That day, I read to him. My mother and I had a conversation about sharing this last picture on social media - it's an uncomfortable picture. My grandfather was near the end of his life. But, we also agreed that the end of life is hard, but each moment is still so very precious. My mother took this picture - it's her hand that he's holding that day - and it's one of my most precious gifts.
When I look at these pictures, I feel a myriad of different emotions. I remember at the first family reunion after my grandfather's death, one of my grandfather's cousins said she saw the pictures online, and they upset her greatly - they made her uncomfortable. She has a right to feel her own discomfort. That won't stop me from writing about these pictures or sharing them. These images make me think of something else though. They make me think of every smile and laugh, of every firm handhold, of every grin and his deep belly laugh. They make me remember how being loved by him felt - and that he had a smile ready for everyone and he said "dear" to my grandmother when he got frustrated, but also when he loved her. They capture the final moments of a bold, bright, beautiful life - and they show death for what it is a reality that none of us can escape from.