I am not making this up.
These were not autopsy photos, but photos that had been taken after the bodies had been prepared for burial. The book was arranged with the photo on the right and a caption on the left that gave the person's name, when and where they were born, and then the date of their death. The subjects ranged in age and were equally representative of gender. For the most part, each person appeared to be dressed in their finest--one woman had on what was probably her wedding dress. Each person wore the same self-satisfied expression, as if they knew the punchline to the joke about human existence:
"Why are we here?" we ask. "Hell if I know!" they reply.The average person would have felt like a creepy voyeur after viewing the first two photos, but as I have a fascination for most things morbid, it took a bit longer for my brain to process the appropriate gag reflex. Mine finally kicked in when I was about about halfway through the book, but it still wasn't instense enough to make me put it down. Instead, I flipped to the back to see if there was any credible explanation.
Apparently the photographer is someone who lives in Harlem. Three years ago, she took a photograph of someone's recently departed 101 year old great-grandmother and was awestruck by her "beauty". She took 30 more photos at the same funeral home and somehow determined that this would make a great coffee table book.
For the life of me, I cannot imagine that the "models" would have appreciated being photographed and cataloged like artifacts in a museum exhibit. Furthermore, I can imagine that most of them (especially the women) would have hated the way they looked. No matter how attractive they might have been in life, in death they all had the same eerie, bloated look. If not bloated, then ashen. Or plastic. Grotesque.
Death may be a natural part of life, but there is nothing natural about the preparations we pay morticians to perform on our dearly departed loved ones. We believe that by participating in these elaborate funereal rituals, we are restoring some sense of dignity to our lost loved ones. If a person was ill, we place the emphasis on who they were in the vibrant days of their life. We ask for the extras to camoflague the weight loss, cuts, burns, bruises, etc in the hopes that the final glimpse will represent what we believe to have been the person's essence. In the end it always seems that those efforts cross the line from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Years ago in Jet magazine, there was a photo of a man who was to be buried in a custom-made casket that had been fashioned into a car. He was seated in the driver's seat, with his stiff hands arranged around a steering wheel. His relatives reasoned that he liked to travel in style. In the book, one of the young men was dressed in a new Sean John sweatsuit, and in his hands there were crumpled dollar bills. Several of the women were buried in their Sunday hats.
I am not sure if any of this is particularly dignified. Death is the ultimate state of vulnerability, the ultimate loss of control. After they slice you open, remove your organs and stitch you back up again, I wonder if it really matters that whatever remains gets buried in your favorite suit.
In the end, death reveals more about us than we ever knew about ourselves.