Contrary to what these photographs might lead you to believe, the people in them are dead; they represent a special kind of funerary service that involves anything but laying down. Instead, the deceased are posed doing things that you’d see them doing while they were alive. Miriam Burbank is seen with a can of Busch beer and menthol cigarette between her fingers, while the body of Christopher Rivera is propped up in a faux boxing ring.
These strange and creepy displays aren’t anything new, although they are unusual. The phenomenon first appeared as early as the 1984 funeral of Willie Stokes Jr., a Chicago gambler known as the Wimp. He sat through his services behind the wheel of a coffin made to look like a Cadillac Seville. And even earlier than that are the post-mortem photographs of the Victorian era, where the recently deceased were captured while sitting in their finest clothing. While it’s not a funeral, they show how throughout time, we’re trying to remember those passed for how they lived.
Elsie Rodríguez, vice president of the funeral home that organized Rivera’s service, explains some of benefits of these situations, telling the New York Times, “This is not a fun or funny event; the family is going through a lot of pain. With these kinds of arrangements, “the family literally suffers less, because they see their loved one in a way that would have made them happy — they see them in a way in which they still look alive.” (Via The New York Times)
In his series Evergreen, the photographer Bjørn Haldorsen visits the Evergreen funeral home in Brooklyn; like throwing flour on the invisible man, his images hope to give form to the invisible, intangible notion of death. In capturing the peripheral objects and mundane moments of embalming and service preparation, he paints a poignantly nuanced portrait of mortality.
These bitterly honest slices of a life once lived avoid sentimentality or theatricality. Unlike in Victorian post-mortem photography, Haldorsen avoids full portraits of the dead, opting instead to capture the seemingly banal elements of the business of death. Staff members arrange casket pillows routinely and perfunctorily, and only the corner of an urn is shot, revealing the accidental dust allowed to collect around it.
Yet within the work is a potent thread of emotionality and love as seen through subtle tricks of light; where a gray-haired body rests on a gurney, a figure, basks divinely in an overexposed door, as if to mourn in mysterious and unknowable ways. Similarly, a man sits in a dimly-lit room, sequestered from the lonesome darkness of the funeral space. Lifeless hands with yellowed nails seem to reach out at the viewer, exhaustedly collapsing on sanitary plastic wrapping, and swelled feet are contorted by wear, dirt still caught between their nails. Youthful hands gently insert a match flame into the wrinkled nose of the diseased; the ritual frozen forever, made to feel sacred and painfully intimate.
Haldorson’s vision of death reads as jarringly rational, offering little solace in the face of death, and yet upon closer inspection, viewers may discover hints of hope, the slightest traces of loving memory, preserved forever. Take a look. (via Feature Shoot)