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?