September 23, 2008

So Death is Coming...

"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." Life Before Death, a photo essay by Walter Schels.

Above is a sample of a moving, disturbing, poignant series of photos that my friend Lucy brought to my attention. I have viewed the entire series on several occasions and am captured by the stories of each of the subjects, for indeed they are our stories. (I encourage you to do the same by clicking here or go to and search "Life Before Death & Walter Schels.) We live a myth of immortality which, though disturbed by the inconvenient intrusion of death from time to time, we are surprisingly adept at maintaining. This series of photos causes us to pause not with a morbid voyerism but with an unambiguous acknowledgement that we too will pass this way.

I found the wide variety of responses to death in those facing it squarely engaging. Some worldviews show through clearly (reincarnation, resurrection, anihilation, etc.) while others respond solely to the emotive power of the moment be it anger, great sadness, or ambivalence. In my experience with those facing death or walking this shadowed path with a loved one there is an equally wide ranging set of responses. I am often surprised by this as the vast majority of those I serve in these moments are immersed in a Christian worldview, yet thier responses in these moments are anything but the Christian understanding of this event. (I will address this in a later post...)

Very often when I officiate (what an interesting term...from the Latin, to provide divine service) a funeral I remind those gathered that this is a moment for solemn reflection as they too will someday have their name at the head of an obituary column. What then is to be done with the life we are given to live? Moses put his request before God in these words, "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." (Psalm 90:12).

So, death is coming. An unavoidable question arises, are you, am I, living in such a manner as to be fully prepared for this approaching moment?


Paul Thompson said...

John, interesting is probably not the right word for me to use here but until I find a better word... interesting will do. Thanks brother

John said...

Yes, my friend, there is a "gruesome" factor involved here but after taking a step back and looking at this again I found it to be very tasteful. I was most impressed by the willingness of these individuals to make themselves incredibly vulnerable at this most personal moment of their lives.

Stay tuned. Hope is on the way.

Gwendolyn said...

One September night about 15 years ago, I had a brush with death that really got my attention. After I was home and safe, I realized this: that I was not living in a way that would make it okay with me to die. I was living in too much fear, and not spending time doing the things that seemed to me the most important.

I cannot say that this brush with death 'cured' me of my habits, for it didn't, but mystics have long said that the path to a well-lived life includes living with the awareness of one's own mortality. I think this is true. We cannot live fully if we do not admit to ourselves that we will die one day, sooner or later, and that we don't know when it will be.

I don't think the photos are 'gruesome' at all. When my father died, it was amazing to see the life ebb from his face. But I have sat with the dying and with the dead, and all I can think -- again and again -- is that death often completes the circle, bringing us back to the hairless, helpless infants we were at the beginning. And in the same way that we care lovingly for our infants, we should care lovingly for our dying. They -- we -- are beautiful.

John said...


Great to hear from you. Thank you for sharing your story. I am mindful that among Benedict's rules is this little piece of wisdom, "Keep death daily before one's eyes." It seems at first a morbid preoccupation but is in fact an enlivening notion pressing us to live with purpose.

I hear your thoughts with the "circle" but I must point out that, from a biblical point of view, it is not a circle but a line. If we are simply returning to the starting place then life is nothing more than a wheel in a mouse cage - constantly running and getting nowhere. The biblical witness is that we are created (a definite event at a definite point) and we have purpose (we are going somewhere for a reason). We would do well to be certain of where we are heading. As one wise man said, "It would be terrible to spend your life climbing the ladder only to discover it was leaning against the wrong wall."

I look forward to hearing from you again very soon!



Sojourner said...

Hi John, spending time browsing through other blog's reading lists and popped in. The photos were beautiful to me from an artistic perspective. The death of our human body must occur right? Without death there cannot be life. Yet, death does not come without pain, grief, and sorrow. I pray that I will have served God's purpose before my body ceases to provide breath.

Mike said...

These pics really bring the subject home. I think we try to insulate ourselves from the subject as much as possible.