Curious Trends

30/07/2010

Death in photography


“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people,” said Gladstone. It was when he was Prime Minister that, on March 26th 1885, Caroline Pickersgill of Regent’s Park in London became the first person to be legally cremated in Britain. Cremation was considered the only sanitary way of dealing with the dead at a time of huge population growth in overcrowded areas - yet in 1885, only two other bodies were cremated at Britain’s first crematorium in Woking. Today, around 72% of our bodies are disposed of in this way.

There has and always will be a need to remove the bodies of the dead from amongst the living, but modern day cremations can seem like a very inhuman process, especially when compared to the elaborate mourning rituals involving coffins of the dead in, say, Victorian times. In fact, a ‘final’ image of the deceased was a common sight in family photograph albums of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Nowadays, in our efforts to hide images of death from public view, such records may appear unnatural or even grotesque – yet, in reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.




Irish photographer, Maeve Berry confronted the taboos surrounding death imagery in modern society head on, with her series of photographs shot in a crematorium over two months in 2008. In a unique visual exploration of death, Berry’s Incandescence exhibition, shown at Diemar/Noble Photography in late 2009, sought to demystify the cremation process in an aesthetically pleasing fashion.




Maeve feels that people are much more comfortable with death in her native Ireland, where “they wander through graveyards like they’re visiting old friends” and “even children are allowed to see the bodies of the dead in their coffins.” As a mature student at university in London, Maeve started collecting death-related curiosities and found herself wondering why there were no portraits of the dead in the National Gallery. Eventually, she began working with an undertaker in a bid to build a relationship that would enable her to photograph the bodies.


To Maeve, cremations had always been cold, empty affairs, “when the curtains close it’s dreadful – like a magic act,” she says. Maeve believes that the most painful part of cremation is seeing the curtains close and having to walk away from them, “throwing soil on a coffin is also like the last deed – you don’t want to leave someone after that: You want to see them through to the very end…”

A curious fact, and something that not a lot of people know, is that you can actually go behind the scenes at a cremation - and, despite popular urban myth, there’s no smell of burning flesh.


Berry visited three separate crematoria, where she says the whole operation was very carefully monitored. However, what amazed her most was not simply how caring and respectful the staff were, but also how beautiful the final moments of the dead appeared, as flames flickering through a small glass window in the side of the furnace, until they were reduced to their last remaining ashes.

“Seeing bones stripped bare is a humbling experience,” says Maeve, but she wanted to show the reality of death so “none of the photographs are touched up, there is no falsification…nor is this in any way sensationalist, it’s simply my vision of reality.” Apparently, relatives of the deceased also
found  her images of their loved ones “ as beautiful in
death as in life”.


Maeve’s photography fills a void in the modern art gallery, by giving the dead a place amongst images of the living (and in the progression of life) within the art world.

Her photos are a far stretch from snapshots of the ‘dearly departed’ displayed at online cemeteries and memorial websites…

Though it’s now seeming ever more probable that the next curious trend will involve posting images of the dead on the internet.
Add a Comment
Bookmark and Share