Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Life Before Death

Have you heard of Walter Schels, the seventy-two year-old photographer who was so terrified of dying, he felt compelled to capture the images and stories of twenty-four people, before and after their death.

When people die, when their spirits pass on, it's the most beautiful, peaceful thing. It's amazing, a true miracle, the most beautiful peace I've ever felt in my life.

But what's left, after?

Is terrifying.  As a child, I wrote a story, once, about a girl at her father's funeral. I can't remember whether it was supposed to be fiction or not, but it was basically non-fiction, LOL. I can remember the fear, and I can remember for years afterward, I had nightmares that I would open a closet, and my dad would fall out, straight and stiff and dead.

It seems Schels approached the project with the hopes of making peace with death and a much worse childhood memory:

From The Guardian article:

... all his life, says Schels, he has had a crippling fear
of death, and of dead bodies. "I was brought up in
Munich during the war, and one day our house was
bombed. I saw many bodies - limbs torn off, heads
torn off, terrible things - and I have never forgotten
them. Since that day, I was always afraid of dead
bodies. Even when my mother died - she was 89
years old, and I'd taken her photograph earlier that
very day - I didn't want to see her after death."

So it took every ounce of his courage to embark
on a project that was going to force him into such
close contact with the dead. "I was filled with
terror. Sometimes when I was taking pictures of a
body I would be loading my camera and I'd keep
looking at their face out of the corner of my eye,
making sure they really were dead. Once I had
a dream in which one of the subjects woke up
during the shoot, and said, 'What are you doing?'
And I knew she was dead but I didn't want to tell
her, and in my dream I was thinking, 'Oh no,
how am I going to tell her she's dead?'"

You can see a good part of the Life Before Death collection here, with the subject's stories and thoughts on death.  I will admit I read the stories and looked at the pictures with my stomach in a terror.

I think, as a society that worships youth, we have failed the older generation. Sometimes, they're looked upon as children, but they're not. They're wise and full of life experience. We should respect them, admire them.  It's not just our responsibility to care for them, but to show them they are an integral, important, and needed part of our society.

I remember what it felt like to suddenly be worthless to society, to be completely useless. Maybe we can't understand that feeling, unless we feel it. I remember not being suicidal, but feeling very point-of-factly that if I could only lie in bed, with no hope of getting better, then I was just taking up space. And that I should just die, because I wasn't living, because I wasn't contributing.

But, thankfully, I got better after eight years.

Still, I remember when I went to see that movie about the race horse during the Depression--what was it called?--I literally broke down into incoherent sobs when the trainer said that just because a thing is hurt, you don't just throw it away. 

(The book, incidentally, was written by a woman battling CFS, so I always wondered about that line, after I found out.)

Sometimes, the only thing we have to hold on to is that there is worth in each of us, just by being. Not by what we do, or who we are, or how we act. There is still worth in us, even when we are confined to bed, "useless" to society.

Sheesh, look at me wax ad nauseum about myself.

That's the thing. This collection is so powerful and thought-provoking, I don't think you can browse it without being deeply effected.  Visit the Life Before Death collection here.

I'd be curious to know how it affected you, what you thought of it. Did it bring you any memories you care to share?

18 bonus scribbles:

conley730 4/02/2008 01:30:00 PM  

I think what I noticed most about the pictures is how much more relaxed and at peace all of the people looked after death. I was kind of like you though - my stomach was tight and I was a little nauseated - like I shouldn't be looking.

Is the movie you're thinking of Sea Biscuit? That was a great one!

Rhonda Stapleton 4/02/2008 01:44:00 PM  

Wow, that was tough to look at. I fear death, too, and it's a hard thing to face. It was even harder to read some of those stories...they weren't all comfortable and peaceful--some of those people were just as afraid as I am.

Sad, scary, heartbreaking--but very, very real.

Thank you for posting this, though--ever moment we have on earth is a treasure, meant to be cherished!! It's so easy to forget that...

Zoe Winters 4/02/2008 07:37:00 PM  

Hey Spy, are you still reading the reincarnationist?

The concept of death really disturbs me a lot. I don't know what, if anything, comes after, and that's really upsetting. I try not to think about it.

It doesn't seem fair that we've evolved so far that we understand our own mortality. It seems like a cruel cosmic joke.

Kate S 4/02/2008 07:59:00 PM  


I was struck most by the fact that they didn't look dead to me - just had their eyes closed. I was saddened by the stories, though.

It did bring up the one thing I fear about death - dying before my daughter is ready to be on her own. I live in fear of that, because I'm all she has. Though I also hate to think of her grieving even after she's an adult.

Edie 4/02/2008 08:29:00 PM  

I thought the same as Becky, that they looked peaceful. I truly believe in life after life, so I don't fear it. I fear dying and being sick, but I don't fear being dead. I hope it's a long time away though.

If I had children at home, like Becky, I'd have a fear of dying until they were old enough of being on their own, too.

mom2brie 4/02/2008 10:13:00 PM  

Well, sweetie, you know it affected me (my mom has terminal cancer). I do believe in life after life - not necessary Heaven and Hell, but I do believe that there is more. My Mom also believes this, we've had some really good conversations about it. I don't fear death - it's the natural process of life.

I fear my daughter getting ill and dying. This is my worst fear - I don't know if I could handle that mentally. I know I'd give up my life in a heartbeat for her. I pray I never have to face that.

I want to be there when my Mom dies. I wasn't when my Dad died and that bothers me. I try my best to be there for Mom. I tend to let her take the lead - if she wants to talk about the cancer and her fears, then that is what we talk about. If she doesn't, then I always have stories about Brie to tell her. She is still fighting, but just recently she has made comments such as she has led a good life and is proud of her accomplishments, her kids, and grandkids. I think she is starting to accept death.

I think the pictures were very truthful. Not everyone has an easy life. Some people are able to cope with their journey easier than others. My life goal is to make the world a little bit better than I've found it. If I accomplish this (and help my daughter to also do this) then I'm ready to face my next "adventure" (to quote Dumbledore).

spyscribbler 4/02/2008 11:18:00 PM  

Conley, Sea Biscuit! Thank you, that's it! I've been trying to think of that movie for awhile.

They were peaceful. Remind me to tell you sometime about seeing dead people, LOL. But seriously, I think death is the suddenly realization of love and peace, of what was important.

Not that my belief takes any of fear away of the process.

spyscribbler 4/02/2008 11:19:00 PM  

Rhonda, it is. The stories, you're right. Very real, as you said. You know, the one who said she feared life was rejecting her? God, that was the most terrifying of all.

Like you said, we should cherish what we have. And, hopefully, give something to the world that will give us peace when we die, the knowledge that we contributed.

spyscribbler 4/02/2008 11:21:00 PM  

Zoe, I'm terribly behind in updating my site. I'm going to do a site redesign when I get done with the spy thrillers site, and then the piano studio site. Then comes here. :-) My latest list is in the "Read in 2008" list.

Zoe, that's fascinating. I never thought of it, that way. Are other animals unaware of their mortality? Wow, Zoe. You just gave me a puzzle.

spyscribbler 4/02/2008 11:23:00 PM  

Aww, Kate. I pray you can be there for her, too. Was it me, or did the faces of the people who were most accepting of death seem the most similar before and after? And the faces of those who feared and resisted it seemed the most changed.

spyscribbler 4/02/2008 11:25:00 PM  

Edie, I agree. They did look peaceful. I fear dying and being sick, too. I fear dying alone, and dying before I've written a bunch of novels. I've got 100 stuck in my head. It sounds lame, but, I don't have kids. I need to live long enough to write those novels.

spyscribbler 4/02/2008 11:33:00 PM  

Oh, mom2brie! Brie's going to be healthy and strong for a long time, I know it!

You and your mom are the strongest people I know. I think it is perfect that you got her name; I've always thought that. Being proud: she should be. Gosh, she really should be. I hope when I'm looking at the end of my time, I feel the same way.

And you're right about not everyone has an easy journey. I do believe at the moment of passing, there is a sudden understanding and peace: the ultimate perspective.

Erica Orloff 4/03/2008 12:00:00 AM  

Thank you for sharing that!

I think they all look at peace afterwards. I think I actually felt comforted by it . . . death means an end to the struggle . . . you can go to a new rebirth, to the next phase. Sometimes I fear death--the same way most people do . . . that "middle of the night, if you REALLY think about it" thing. I love my four children and I am not ready to leave them. But having been close to death before (from Crohn's disease), I know at ONE point, I welcomed it as a respite from the struggle.

Now that I embrace Buddhism, I think about it even more as, hopefully, peaceful.

lainey bancroft 4/03/2008 09:52:00 AM  

They did look peaceful...but I had an unquiet heart looking at the pictures. Made me feel like...a voyeur or something.

spyscribbler 4/03/2008 12:14:00 PM  

Erica, I did, too, in a way. Especially the second woman, the one who was mentally preparing for her the very moment of her death. How strong she must be!

The woman who felt "rejected by life" kinda freaked me out, in a dear-God-don't-let-me-end-up-that-way sort of way.

spyscribbler 4/03/2008 12:16:00 PM  

Lainey, I felt like that for a couple. For some other, I felt they wanted to share this part of their life with someone. I mean, they chose to be part of the project, you know? They chose to confide their stories and feelings.

We humans. We must express, I think. I'm willing to listen, and grateful to learn.

Wendy Roberts 4/03/2008 01:14:00 PM  

What a fascinating post.

Melanie Avila 4/03/2008 02:53:00 PM  

I can't look. My emotions are such a wreck right now I don't think I can handle it. I'm also afraid of dead people and have only seen two (one set of grandparents) and don't look forward to more in the future.

Your post really touched me since I've experiencing those feelings for the past year. I'll try to come back & look next month. :)