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The iPhone at the Deathbed

Families are photographing death at home. These photos may feel jarring on Facebook, but the practice itself has a long history

By Penelope Green
Published: Feb 22, 2020

The iPhone at the DeathbedLashanna Williams, a massage therapist and death doula, shows the kind of details she focuses on when photographing the dead, at her home in Seattle, Feb. 12, 2020. Families are photographing death at home — these photos may feel jarring on Facebook, but the practice itself has a long history. (Audrey Kelly/The New York Times

After Robert Alexander died at 51 during heart surgery in June 2018, after he was taken from the hospital to the facility that would recover the tissue and bone he had donated, he was brought to his uncle’s farm in Hinton, Oklahoma, where his six siblings, his mother and other family members and friends had gathered to give him a home funeral.

They laid him out on a sturdy folding banquet table and dressed him in well-worn bluejeans, a Harley-Davidson bandanna, a long-sleeved Affliction T-shirt and his black leather vest painted with the American flag. On the wall behind him, they hung a blanket emblazoned with a flaming skull.

A mechanic, 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,” 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. 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 Alexander’s who are choosing home funerals and following natural death practices — DIY 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 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.

“You can die in a way that has beauty attached,” said Amy Cunningham, 64, a funeral director in New York City who specializes in “green” burials, without embalming or metal coffins, and assists families who are caring for their dead at home.

“The photograph seals the emotion,” Cunningham said. “And with cellular phones ever-present, we’re going to be recording all kinds of things we never did previously. Death is just one of them. Though when you’re Facebook posting and the images are wedged between the latest Trump atrocity and cats who look like Hitler it can be jarring.”

So, too, is the now common experience of seeing emoji applied to tragic events. Do you choose the weeping smiley face or just hit “like”?

The end of the timeline
When Louise Rafkin posted a photo of her mother, Rhoda Rafkin, on Facebook the night of her death at 98 in September with her golden retriever at her side, it rattled some family members and friends.

Rafkin, 61, an author and martial arts teacher in Oakland, California, who is also a contributor to The New York Times, described how she and others had carried Rhoda outside to the garden she had loved. They transported her on an improvised stretcher, a surfboard borrowed from neighbors, and with help from their college-age sons.

Rhoda was dressed in a blue caftan and strewn with sunflowers, roses and gladioli. They tucked her into a sheet, lit candles and sat with her until it was dark. It is a lovely image, shot at the magic hour, as filmmakers like to say of the time just before dusk, but it shocks nonetheless.

“I was crazy about my mom and I wasn’t fazed by her being dead,” Rafkin said, noting that Rhoda, an educator, had been in hospice for more than six months. “I’ve been through the AIDS epidemic. I’m used to death. There are ways you can make this meaningful. Although I’m not religious, I am a deep believer in ritual and how that can heal and provide context.”

The Facebook post was a way to announce Rhoda’s death, Rafkin said, adding, “I’m pretty sure my mother would have disapproved, and that’s a tad unsettling. ‘No folderol,’ she said about the whole process.”

The iPhone at the DeathbedLashanna Williams, a massage therapist and death doula, at her home in Seattle, Feb. 12, 2020. Families are photographing death at home — these photos may feel jarring on Facebook, but the practice itself has a long history. (Audrey Kelly/The New York Times)

Some family members had mixed reactions. “I think what she did in the garden was beautiful,” said Ashley Peterson, 31, of Rafkin, who is her aunt. “But I felt like posting the photos could make people uncomfortable and leave an image in their minds they did not want to see.”

Susan Sontag wrote that photography has its own ethics: It tells us what we are allowed to see and what’s taboo. (In the age of TikTok, these rules have evolved beyond all imagining.) If we are more familiar with the deaths of strangers, their violent ends captured by photojournalists, maybe that’s because the deaths of our intimates have been at a remove for so long.

There have been exceptions, of course, like the harrowing images that emerged during the AIDS epidemic from photographers like Therese Frare and artists like David Wojnarowicz, whose tender portraits of his friend and mentor Peter Hujar are holy-seeming and sacramental.

“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. 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.

These were prized mementos, most often the only photograph that was ever taken of the subject, said Stanley B. Burns, 81, the quirky ophthalmologist behind the Burns Archive, a collection of post-mortem and medical photos, among other intriguing photographic genres, stored in a chockablock town house in Midtown Manhattan.

The photos in Burns’ “Sleeping Beauty” books (there are three) are both ghoulish and gorgeous. Burns pointed out that the subjects tended to look pretty good, because the plagues that felled them did so quickly.

The images have been inspiration and provided material for collectors and Victoriana enthusiasts like Joanna Ebenstein, 48, a writer and curator who was a founder of the idiosyncratic Morbid Anatomy Museum, now closed, in New York City. “Post-mortem photographs can be seen as a Western form of ancestor veneration,” said Ebenstein, a practice that began to decline when death was outsourced to the clinical environments of hospitals and funeral homes, “and it became taboo to talk about.”

(In 1910, Ladies' Home Journal rebranded the parlor, where Americans had been laying out their dead for nearly a century, as “the living room” and the nascent funeral industry took the word “parlor” for its activities.)

But what really curtailed post-mortem photography and the elaborate mourning rituals behind it, according to Burns, was World War I. “There was so much death,” he said. “If everyone is mourning, you lose your fighting spirit. It’s not patriotic.”

“What’s happening now is that people are taking back that process,” Burns continued. “But the impulse to photograph is the same as it was for the Victorians. They want to show they have seen their person through to the end. ‘I’ve done this work, I’ve loved her to the end.’ It’s your last bond, and you want to document that.”

As the funeral industry slowly evolves from Big Casket to include a cadre of overwhelmingly female and digitally native professionals with all manner of titles (end of life teachers, death doulas and others), they are displaying their work, with humor and photographs, on social media.

Their message: Get comfortable with death, it doesn’t have to be so scary, and here are photos to prove it.

They share images of the dead attended by family members in their beds, or shrouded in natural fabrics cinched with rope at a grave site. They perform death themselves, as Melissa Unfred, 41, a natural mortician based in Austin, Texas, sometimes does, lying in shallow graves strewn with flowers and turf. Unfred, who sells “Cremate the Patriarchy” T-shirts on Etsy, is the Mod Mortician of Twitter and Instagram, one of many evangelists for the so-called Death Positive movement.

Caitlin Doughty, 35, a funeral director who describes herself as a mortician activist and funeral industry rabble rouser, recently re-enacted a Victorian-style post-mortem photo shoot with a tintype photographer at the Merchant House Museum in Manhattan, and shared it on YouTube.

Doughty is the founder of the Order of the Good Death and the author of “Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?” published last September, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory” and other jauntily titled books designed to demystify death. With her Bettie Page crop, she is an avatar of the goth-inflected sub-tribe of death professionals.

“It’s not like no one never took a photo of Mom in the coffin,” Doughty said. “I have pictures of my grandparents in their caskets fully embalmed. But the sense of ownership has changed. It’s not, ‘Mom is handed to the funeral parlor and they do something behind the scenes and sell the body back to you.’ Sure, you could take photos but it’s like a statue in a museum. The product of someone else’s art. My sense of why we are seeing more and more photos of these natural bodies is because the families have prepared them themselves, they’ve done a job together and they are proud of their work.”

Doughty advises families on home death rituals and best practices, like how to keep the dead cool with packs of dry ice. “One family texted me photos as they worked, though not to say, ‘How are we doing?’ but, ‘Look how beautiful.’ I think people have this fear that Mom is going to be this otherworldly creepy thing, and then when that doesn’t happen, they want to capture it.”

Cunningham, the funeral director in New York City, recalled addressing a group of Unitarians in Albany a few years ago, and saying that she wasn’t sure she would want to be viewed, post-mortem, by her friends and family. That she would prefer to be looking her best. A nonagenarian yelled out, quite sharply, as she remembered, “‘You’ll get over that!’”

“And that got me thinking,” Cunningham said. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to die unfettered and free from worrying about how I look?”

Remembrance portraits
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,” 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,” Wasow said. “It’s about documenting the transition from a physical body to a memory.”

There are gentler ways to memorialize the process of dying than a portrait of a face with the life drained from it. Lashanna Williams, 40, a massage therapist and death doula in Seattle, has been making portraits of her dying clients, with their permission, to share with family members if they ask for them.

She captures the area between a forefinger and thumb, or the calluses of someone’s hands. Wrinkles, she likes to say, are containers for memories and lived experience. She may take a photo of the crepey skin on an arm, or a scar, and sometimes she layers those images with photo collages made from leaves or flowers. The images are both abstract and intimate.

The aesthetic and language of modern post-mortem photography is not all fabric shrouds and flower petals, however. Monica Torres, 42, is a desairologist (the term for hair and makeup stylists who work on the dead) and embalmer in Phoenix with a sassy Twitter handle, @Coldhandshosts. Her specialty is trauma, and she relies on conventional methods to make decedents look like themselves again.

“I cannot create a positive, lasting memory for families without the chemicals and tools that I use,” Torres said. The families of her clients often ask her to take photos, or gather at a coffin for a selfie, she added.

An educator, she also shares her work in vivid photos on her website. “Now that the death-positive movement is in full effect,” she said, “families are beginning to show interest, and documenting their journey through grief is a powerful tool to use toward acceptance. We want to empower families with education about what it is we actually do and how our dark art is valuable.”

Bam Truesdale, 37, a hair and makeup stylist in Charlotte, North Carolina, has been preparing decedents for funeral parlors for 10 years. When his mother, Cynthia Cummings, died at 61 in 2016, he worked on her, too. As is his habit with all the people he prepares, he put earphones in his mother’s ears, and played her gospel music, though he worked in silence.

After Truesdale had made his mother up and done her hair, pinning a white feather and rhinestone fascinator to her curls, he smoothed her dress, adjusted her stockings and picked her up, placing her gently in her coffin.

He captured the entire process with his Android phone, though when he paused to kiss her face all over, as he used to do when she was alive, the colleague he’d brought from work to help him if he faltered took the phone from him and snapped those photos herself. Afterward, he uploaded the images to a Google drive and did not look at them again until the last week of January.

“I started feeling emotional that day,” he said, “and something in my head told me, I think it was her, that I had never shared her like she asked me to.” When Cummings was dying, she made Truesdale promise that he would make sure no one would forget her. “I was going back and forth, ‘Maybe I should? Maybe I shouldn’t? People are going to think I’m weird.’”

It was evening when Truesdale posted his dead mother’s photos on Facebook. He awoke the next morning to find his phone lit up with thousands of comments and notifications. Many people asked if he could make the post public, so he did. By the end of the day, 25,000 people had “liked” the post, and it had been shared more than 15,000 times.

Among the more than 4,000 comments, the most common were that Cummings looked beautiful, and that Truesdale had done a wonderful job caring for her. Strangers wrote that they wished they could have had a similar experience with their own family members.

His three siblings thanked him, too. “They didn’t know they wanted to see the pictures,” he said. “But they did.”

©2019 New York Times News Service

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