We Document Life’s Milestones. How Should We Document Death?

We Document Life’s Milestones. How Should We Document Death?

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Has someone close to you ever died? Are you comfortable talking about death with your family and friends? Do you ever post, or see others post, about death on social media?

In “The iPhone at the Deathbed,” Penelope Green writes about families who are trying to find meaningful ways to honor the deaths of their loved ones:

A mechanic, Mr. Alexander had loved motorcycles, though his health and finances had kept him from being a regular rider. After he was properly adorned, and “looking pretty badass,” as his sister Tawnya Musser said, his siblings and their mother gathered around him, and a brother-in-law took a family photo using his smartphone.

“We couldn’t think of a time when all of us had been together with Mom,” Ms. Musser, 34, said. “So we had the conversation. Did Mom want a photo with all seven of her children and was it morbid that one of them was dead?”

There ended up being several photographs. They are startling and beautiful. Mr. Alexander looks peaceful and regal. The siblings have shared them among themselves, but the images don’t live on social media, as many contemporary death photos do.

In a collision of technology and culture, of new habits and very old ones, we are beginning to photograph our dead again.

For families like Mr. Alexander’s who are choosing home funerals and following natural death practices — D.I.Y. affairs that eschew the services of conventional funeral parlors — photography is an extension and celebration of that choice.

Family members are sitting with kin in hospice, or taking them home from hospitals, and continuing to care for them after they die, often washing their bodies and then adorning them, as Mr. Alexander’s family did, with favorite clothes, flowers, cards, books and other totems. They are sending their dead off as their grandparents used to, and recording the event and its aftermath with their smartphones.

Ms. Green writes that photographing death is not something new:

“In one sense it’s surprising because we’ve been so disconnected from death in the last century or so,” said Bess Lovejoy, the author of “Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses,” published in 2013, of the resurgence of home death photography. Ms. Lovejoy is also a member of the Order of the Good Death, an organization of funeral professionals, artists and scholars that prepare a culture generally in denial about death.

“But we are returning to the older ways,” she went on, “a movement backward that some say began in the ’70s, with the back-to-nature movement and midwifery and natural births. The natural death movement is part of that. And these photos are unsurprising, too, because we carry our smartphones all the time, and it’s almost like if there isn’t a photo it didn’t happen. Now everyone is a photographer.”

Modern photography was born in 1839, when Louis Daguerre refined a process for capturing an image on silver-plated copper. For decades, one of the most common uses of this new technology was the post-mortem photo: an artfully composed image, taken by a professional photographer, of dead family members in all manner of poses. Dead children in the laps of their parents, often with their eyes painted open; dead adults dressed in their finest clothes; even dead parents holding their living children; or entire families, wiped out by diseases like cholera, typhoid or diphtheria, nestled together in bed.

The article looks at the role of social media in allowing individuals to own the narrative of their illness or death:

Cancer patients and others with terminal illnesses have long used photos and videos to bear witness to their suffering and make visible that which is considered off limits — on blogs, Twitter and now TikTok — and have encouraged family members and friends to do so on their behalf when they are no longer able to, pushing visual and emotional boundaries well beyond what may be considered comfortable.

As in the Victorian era, post-mortem photographs of children have a terrible urgency and mission. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is an organization of volunteer photographers who make “remembrance portraits” of babies, often of the child in their parent’s arms, to assist in the grieving process.

Oliver Wasow, a photographer, recalled the agonizing images a friend shared last summer of her son’s death to cancer at age 8 on Instagram and Facebook, documenting her child’s devastating decline, and then her own grief.

It was shattering to see — “You couldn’t ‘like’ the photos,” Mr. Wasow said — but he recognized the value it had for his friend. Some people, he noted, say the difference between analog photography and digital photography is that digital photography is a kind of activity, versus analog photographs, which are documents.

“When you throw in social media, it becomes a record of a process rather than a record of a person. Yet the purpose remains the same whether it’s the 19th century or the 21st,” Mr. Wasow said. “It’s about documenting the transition from a physical body to a memory.”

Students, read the article, then tell us:

  • How do you think death should be documented? Some of us may be familiar with funerals or memorial services, but the article also discusses photographing, posting on social media, painting portraits, as well as dressing and adorning the dead. Do any of these practices resonate with your own beliefs or rituals around death? Do any of the practices make you feel uncomfortable? Why or why not?

  • What is your reaction to the Death Positive movement? Why do you think there is mystery, fear and taboo around death? How do you think that death can be demystified?

  • How does your family regard death and mourning? Are the people in your life comfortable thinking and talking about death? What are the traditions specific to your family related to death and mourning? Are there specific religious or spiritual practices you engage in? Or, are there secular rituals that are important for your own mourning or healing process?

  • Do you know how your family’s traditions, celebrations or ceremonies of death have changed from generation to generation? What was your reaction to learning that people in the 1800s would photograph the dead? How do you think our relationship to death will evolve over the next 50 or 100 years?

  • The article refers to, “ … the now common experience of seeing emoji applied to tragic events.” If you were to see photographs of death and mourning posted on social media, how would you interact with, and respond to, it? Ms. Green asks, “Do you choose the weeping smiley face or just hit ‘like’?” If a friend tells you that someone close to them has died, do you feel comfortable responding? Is it easier to respond in person or on social media?

Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.