Taken over the course of a year spent with a Christchurch funeral home, Bridgit Anderson takes us into the unfamiliar world of the undertaker through a powerfully composed set of black and white photographs. As a teacher/ researcher on death and dying, I have focussed on what makes this exhibition unusual and why this helps me professionally.
As a sociologist, my focus of attention is the social world and studying death is one of the most powerful ways to reveal and analyse the complexities and intensities of society. A key responsibility is to help students develop a social awareness of death and dying, yet this is a challenging task. Seeing beyond ourselves is the first and most profound step towards social awareness. However, as everyday experiences of death are usually very intense and emotionally powerful, it is difficult to approach death without bringing overwhelming personal associations to mind. The challenge of teaching on death and dying is to capture the complexity and intensity of death in a way that moves us beyond our personal experiences.
Anderson’s work makes for a very unusual exhibition. The most immediate thing is that we see images of the living attending to the dead. This is not unusual in itself. Post-mortem photographs exit and have existed ever since the technology emerged. Since the technology became available in the mid 19th Century, people have been taking photographs of the war dead and their own dead. Photographs of the war dead are the preserve of international news, while photographs of dead family members are the preserve of private family albums. Post mortem photographs were particularly popular at the turn of the 18th to 19th century – some say post mortem photographs were so popular because often they were the only likeness of the deceased ever taken. Now post mortem photographs exist in the cabinets of detectives and coroners or in discreetly viewed family albums. What makes Anderson’s exhibition unusual is that we most only see the dead of disaster and war, not the personal, individual photo-story of a person’s last ceremony. Though it maybe not so unusual to have photographs of our dead relatives, it is very unusual to have photographs of the dead produced and displayed professionally in a public exhibition. This exhibition represents something different from the norm of personal photographs of dead relatives in private family albums or the professional case notes of police coroners and anatomists.
By giving us the opportunity to view something that we don’t usually get a chance to see, it demystifies what is usually left to our imagination. We get to see and gain an understanding of what goes on behind closed doors. Having dead people in the images, by running the risk of invoking powerful associations, actually draws our attention to the main point of the exhibition, which is to show how funeral directors care for the dead. By focussing on the dead Anderson is seeking to capture the essence of funeral work. Though studied and produced, these photographs actually capture the nub of this profession: caring for the dead is a closely worked activity that is all about managing a transition. Powerful images show the sheer physicality, technicality and art involved in tending the dead. The closeness of the touching, the watching, the listening, the overall attention to detail shows that the profession takes its task seriously, which is to prepare the deceased for their publicly acknowledged transition from the realms of the living to the realms of the dead. What resonates is that these images reveal the complexities of funeral work. If anything it is a balancing act between intimacy and distance, function and form, the profound and ordinary. For instance the image of washing a hand with rubber gloved hands reveals an intimate attention approached with professional detachment (Body preparation- mortuary). Likewise, by co-ordinating the effects of embalmment with the aesthetic need for a presentable body, the art of applying makeup is a balance between function and form (Body presentation- prep room). Tea-break in the store room captures ordinary routines in a business which deals in the profound (Trim room- workshop area). Through her lens, we get to see how close the living are to the dead as they prepare them for their final obsequies.
This exhibition also reveals broad contours of New Zealand society. New Zealand is a society marked by difference and division. The Samoan, Chinese and Maori observances acknowledge the different ways in which people mark death in New Zealand and reveal it as multicultural. At the same time, the destitute’s funeral, simply observed, speaks to the poverty and hardship that marks many people’s lives and divides the haves from the have-nots. Anderson gives us the opportunity to appreciate that though each death is unique, all deaths are informed by socio-cultural circumstances.
The exhibition space – as wide, big, lit, almost choreographed, allows us to appreciate these images in a different way than we would if we were looking at them from the comfort and familiarity of our own home or with the trained eye of a medic or sleuth. As a photographic exhibition of the dead held in a public art gallery, Anderson gives those who do not know the deceased, the opportunity to experience the intensity and complexity of death outside of our own emotional lives. And for those who do know them, perhaps the opportunity to reflect upon them in an unfamiliar way. Both approaches encourage us to see beyond ourselves as we think about death and dying. It also encourages us to see, perhaps unexpected similarities between different groups of people while at the same time appreciating how different people’s deaths and lives are in Christchurch.
This exhibition helps me professionally because it offers an unusual and effective way to articulate the social aspects of death and dying and bereavement. Anderson’s Caring for the dead opens up an aspect of contemporary live seldom viewed with dispassion. By being faced with images take us out of our comfort zones, we get to see how death is complex and intense in ways that go beyond our personal experiences. Moreover, we also get a sense of the unique contours of New Zealand life. This exhibition, by flouting current conventions to reveal the rarely seen, presents a unique opportunity to move beyond ourselves and gain a social awareness of death.
Dr Ruth McManus has been a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Canterbury since 2005. She has a specialist interest in issues of death, dying and bereavement.