In 2014, it is rather unheard of to have the living co-mingle with the dead. We imagine the bodies of our dead loved ones dying in the hospital, or in a nursing home, and occasionally in more troubling circumstances, such as accidents. It is safe to say, however, that those who make it to old age do not die in the comfort of their homes, or without medical intervention. We only view the dead in safe and specific circumstances, generally during a wake for our final goodbye. Upon death, whenever we may die, our bodies are swept away in body bags or covered in sheets, at the anonymous hands of the funeral professional. Our bodies are intervened upon with chemicals. We are embalmed and we are displayed. Others opt to be cremated, where our bodies are transformed into ashes. Our bodies are no longer bodies after life, but postmortem entities or commodities to be shuffled between rooms and removed from sight. For this talk, I will be using the genre of postmortem photography to understand the shifting “labor of death”, which I define as the processes or work that the living do for the dead, with special attention given to social and cultural norms. This includes the work of burial, and preparing the body, which we now look to death professionals to handle.
This piece was originally written for Poetry + Theory #1: Corpse Photography and awesome cameras, a lecture and reading at Sector 2337 in Chicago, IL.