Post Mortem (NSFW)

Corpses, Coffins & Co

Two months before my father died, we were talking about the importance of a funeral album at the beginning of photography, despise the fact that now almost only state or more political public figures have one. Although you can now easily find some new funeral photographers.
In the early years of photography, there were 3 important albums to do in a person’s life: birth (including baptism), wedding and death – the circle of life with all its rituals in the western culture.

Funeral of Martin Luther King, by Moneta J Sleet jr (Pulitzer Prize)

Funeral of Martin Luther King, by Moneta J Sleet jr (Pulitzer Prize)

Martin Luther King Funeral, photographer unknown

Martin Luther King Funeral, photographer unknown

Jacqueline Kennedy at John F. Kennedy’s funeral by ©Elliott Erwitt

Jacqueline Kennedy at John F. Kennedy’s funeral by ©Elliott Erwitt

A funeral album can be seen as morbid for some, but important for others who will need visual memory of the day that they lost someone dear to them. Due to my interest in that, my father ended the conversation saying that he would love me to do his funeral photographs. I didn’t. In fact I didn’t even go to his funeral, as I needed to be far away from that.
Each one of us has a different approach to death, and death has been always the biggest enigma and the most exploited matter in all religions. Some tells you that you can find 1000 virgins after you’ll die, some others tells you that there’s heaven and hell and even purgatory for the ones who are not sure where to go. Some other people believe that we will have re-incarnations. The fact is that people in general fears death: as the unknown, they can’t have any kind of control on that.

For the people in grief, they often have this selfish attitude of suffering their loss, instead of being happy in case the dead one is no longer suffering. So people get attached to memories, so they can feel safe… especially when the person who died was somehow a reference.

Stoned Head, by ©Gonzalo Bénard

Stoned Head, by ©Gonzalo Bénard

My father was an old school conservative catholic, however, as a wise man as he was, he understood euthanasia for example, and we both had more or less the same ideas in relation to death, even if I’m apostate and atheist. Knowing me, he was the one who told me not to go to his funeral, but if I go, at least I should take photographs.

I never used photography as in the movie “Memento“, as helper to our memory in which he uses a Polaroid as the most immediate form of photography. In fact, when I want to keep a place in memory I don’t even take photos, or else I would trust more in a camera than in my feelings and subconscious world.

Today an old uncle died, someone who was also a reference of life, not as close as my father was of course, but I realised that when we approach certain ages we start loosing physical references: our grandparents first, than our parents and uncles’ generation, and finally – as I remember my father going through that, our closest friends and generation. Also happens with other references who are not close, or whom we didn’t even know in real, as some cultural references, actors, artists, politicians, musicians. Sometimes is only after they die that we give to their legacy and life some value, and this is typical human, as if we were too proud to accept how good they are, so we wait for them to die to say that they’re really great. In that, I’m glad that with my father we said all we wanted to say to each other till his last breath. I took a portrait of him couple years ago when I came out from my coma though.

Man in Top Hat, by ©Derek B

Man in Top Hat, by ©Derek B

Funeral by ©Ian Berry

Funeral by ©Ian Berry

I never did a funeral album. I might be still waiting for a special one with which I’ll not be emotionally connected so I can have a different approach… and not being shaking the camera. I would love to be commissioned to do one though.

Birth, baptism and wedding albums can be quite boring and often tacky, unless is something really great and different, breaking the rules in the best way. Most of them are only interesting for the people involved in them. They’re all happy no matter if real or fake: they go to show they’re best smiles and dresses. And to eat. It’s boring. And it’s often tacky as I said.

Funeral albums are different: they’re more real, with people really expressing their grief, some others more into the cocktail, others as an opportunity to gather old friends or unseen family.

But death is still something to be taken religiously by the majority. Mexicans have that wonderful way of doing “El Dia de los Muertos” with all that food, imagery, colour, gifts to the dead one. In Mediterranean people dress in black and pay women to cry out loud so the gods know that the one who died was loved: the weepers, that I represented in a series of photographs back in 2010.

The Weeper #1, by ©Gonzalo Bénard

The Weeper #1, by ©Gonzalo Bénard

In some Asian cultures people dress in white, as purifying souls.

So if you google images of “Dia de los Muertos” you’ll find the opposite feeling from Hindu rituals at Ganges river or even some Mediterranean crying people all dressed in black like crows.

Naxalite funeral, by ©Javed Iqbal

Naxalite funeral, by ©Javed Iqbal

But a corpse is a corpse, and no matter what, if located in the funeral environment it can be uncomfortable to be seen. However, a corpse in a surreal environment can have a completely different feeling or mood. A corpse is no longer a person, but people can get attached to the image of the living one and is not easy for some to see them as just a corpse without soul, identity or even mind.

Joel-Peter Witkin (his documentary is a must see), has been using real corpses in his work since always with a masterful approach. To be honest, after I’ll die, I don’t really care what people will do with my body, even if I would prefer the idea of being cremated, that body is no longer anyone, so it can be used for science, for other person in need of an organ, or even to Joel-Peter Witkin to create something with it. That idea is nice, my dead body as final artwork by someone I admire, or just as ashes mixed with earth to feed a tree. I will not feel anything, but the idea is appealing while living being.

The Kiss, by ©Joel-Peter Witkin

The Kiss, by ©Joel-Peter Witkin

by ©Joel-Peter Witkin

by ©Joel-Peter Witkin

What I find creepy (yet curious) is the post-mortem portraits, and on that, Victorians were masters, taking the dead people to the studios so the family could pose with them already dead as if they were still alive. DailyMail made recently a short article about it: “Morbid gallery reveals how Victorians took photos of their DEAD relatives posing on couches, beds and even in coffins

photographer unknown

photographer unknown

photographer unknown

photographer unknown

Polish Funeral, photographer unknown

Polish Funeral, photographer unknown

Victorian photographer unknown

Victorian photographer unknown

 

Another curious and at the same point contradicting is the amount of photographers, who find the idea of funeral photography terrible, love to take photos in grave yards. Including lingerie and erotic photography. The other day I went to the Cimetière du PèreLachaise, here in Paris, and it was incredible the amount of couples taking romantic photos there. I know it’s Paris and every corner is appealing to take tacky romantic photos… but at a graveyard? Really? Not at the grave of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaff or Oscar Wilde, but with the cemetery as background to give a more romantic touch… as in “till death do us part”?

 

Now back to the main point: funeral photography is one of the best places/moments to shoot people expressions, to shoot the culture to which they belong. Funeral photography, maybe more than any other can bring a whole more than just people: it locates you culturally, sociology, geographically. However, it can be quite tricky psychologically if you don’t shoot in the right direction. 

Anyway, if you’re reading this and you’re about to die you can always commission me your own funeral album to leave it as a last memory to your beloved ones. Paid in advance.

text by ©Gonzalo Bénard for 2HeadS
March, 2013
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