This Is What Death Really Looks Like
By: Hayley MacMillen
In Western cultures, we tend to avoid death at all costs. We avoid thinking about it and talking about it, and when faced with it, we often go to extraordinary measures to delay it.
Photographer Cathrine Ertmann decided to confront death head-on. Her project “About Dying” is a “photo essay from the morgue” that “works as a description of what death looks like.” She says, “[It] tries to break down the taboo by showing something we rarely have access to and that death can be both hard to look at and also beautiful…It is one of the only things we all share, regardless of gender, nationality, age, or language.”
Ertmann’s photos are hard to look at (spoiler alert: graphic pictures of the deceased are ahead), but they serve as a point of entry to a seemingly inapproachable subject. They render death more accessible, more comprehensible.
“I think there is something very human and healthy in having a relation to death,” Ertmann states, “how it looks, smells, and how it’s a transition that we will all experience.”
There is some indication that the cultural mentality about death is shifting — that we’re willing to begin having those difficult conversations about an event that is both natural and inevitable. Last month, a 29-year-old cancer patient Brittany Maynardreinvigorated the discussion on the meaning of “a good death” when she announced her decision to end her own life. Ideology-fueled arguments over the correctness of her decision, and about death in general, often lack a personal angle. Sometimes, in debating death, we forget that it’s not an abstract concept. Ertmann hopes that “About Death” will illustrate “the incomprehensible fact that life ends, and hopefully remind the audience that our time here is precious and what things really matter while we are here.”
Ahead, 19 striking photos show what death really looks like, with captions from the photographer.
“His breast isn’t moving. The cells in his body have carried out the last of their work, the mechanisms have come to a halt and he is now not going to get any older.”
“In the chapel of the Pathological Institute of Aarhus University Hospital, the dead are received. Here, they are dressed in clothes, their hair is combed, and they are laid in the coffin before we can say our last goodbyes to those we have lost.”
"This woman was found dead in her home. She has just been through an autopsy, which confirmed that she didn’t die the victim of a crime. Soon, her body will be dressed and laid in the coffin.”
“The only complete certainty in life is that one day we will die. It is the most certain thing in the world, and the biggest uncertainty we experience of the world, because nobody can say what will happen afterwards. Maybe that is why we find it so difficult to speak about death. And, maybe that’s why it is hidden away, under linens, in inaccessible, dedicated rooms in cold corridors beneath hospitals.”
“In the crematory, the coffins are burned. Flowers are removed, but drawings, cards, and pictures accompany it in the big oven and are burned at 850 degrees. It takes about an hour, an hour and a half, to transform into ashes. If there are bone fragments, they are crushed, and the ashes put in an urn. Afterwards, the urn is laid in the ground, or maybe scattered over the sea.”
“A mother is viewed by the family before being laid in the coffin. It takes place in the little chapel reserved for the festivities. Here, all religions are right. The cross on the wall can be removed and Satanists, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus alike — each one with their own rituals — say their last goodbye to the deceased.”
“In the chapel, a family member and a friend say goodbye to the man in the coffin.”
“There are blue and reddish blemishes on the body. These are death’s bruises, telltale signs that the cells have stopped their work, and the blood has rushed to the lowest spots in the body. A label around the toes reports the essential information about the deceased. If the label is orange, they’ve been taken in by Falck. If it’s green, they come from one of the hospital’s departments. It tells when death occurred, if an autopsy needs to be conducted, and the name and social security number.”
“Some plan what clothes they want to be have on when they are laid in the coffin, but more often it is the family who chooses. If no decision is forthcoming, the chapel provides a shirt for the dead. The garment is cut in the back and behind the arms, so it is easier to dress the deceased in it. Sometimes the wish is expressed that the deceased should be naked.”
“During an autopsy the body is opened from the pubic bone up to the throat. All the organs in the breast and the abdominal cavity are removed and examined after the cut is made. The brain is removed from the skull and examined.”
“When the autopsy is done, the table and the floor are hosed clean with water and soap.”
“A man has his hair combed. He lies in a coffin and is dressed in a shirt and blazer. He won’t be viewed by his relatives; he just has to look good until the lid of the coffin is screwed tight with the small screws.”
“What would happen if we saw [death] with our own eyes? If we got a picture of that we already know? That the body is perishable, that it can be torn apart, that it becomes stiff and cold, that it rots and that in the end it is only the shell we inhabit while we are alive.”
“It’s only hard when those who are too young to have died come in. Those who should have experienced much more. Those who leave behind small children. Otherwise, it is really just as natural as being born, and that we don’t hide away,” says Michael Petersen, who directs the work in the chapel.
“Muscular stiffening begins between four and 12 hours after death. It starts in the neck and makes movement of the limbs impossible. When it reaches the scalp, it can make the dead body’s hair rise. Like goose bumps on the living.”