Although I didn’t feel like mentioning it at the time, I had, in fact, just returned from a two-week stay in the US, where I had witnessed the conclusion of my mother’s battle with lung cancer. Mortality was, as you might imagine, not so much an abstract issue for me at that time.
But as with all terminal illnesses, 'the end' was – by definition – hardly a surprise; in the months leading up to it, I had done a lot of thinking about what was coming. One of the things I reached for was Norbert Elias’s book, The Loneliness of the Dying. I had come to know Elias’s work through my research on the history of violence and crime, and it had come to play an important role in my thinking about the world. I suppose it might strike you as odd to consult a sociological theorist when dealing with a personal sorrow; on the other hand, maybe it is a sign of quality theory that it tells you something useful about real life.
In any case, The Loneliness of the Dying is quite a remarkable little book. It betrays, in parts, Elias’s tendency to express himself in a somewhat dry, sociological language, but there are other insightful and almost poetic passages.
I quoted one last year:
Death is not terrible. One passes into dreaming and the world vanishes -- if all goes well. Terrible can be the pain of the dying, terrible, too, the loss of the living when a beloved person dies. There is no known cure. We are part of each other. [...]
There are indeed many terrors that surround dying. What people can do to secure for each other easy and peaceful ways of dying has yet to be discovered. The friendship of those who live on, the feeling of dying people that they do not embarrass the living, is certainly part of it. And social repression, the veil of unease that frequently surrounds the whole sphere of dying in our days, is of little help to people. Perhaps we ought to speak more openly and clearly about death, even if it is by ceasing to present it as a mystery. Death hides no secret. It opens no door. It is the end of a person. What survives is what he or she has given to other people, what stays in their memory. If humanity disappears, everything that any human being has ever done, everything for which people have lived and fought each other, including all secular or supernatural systems of belief, becomes meaningless.
(The Loneliness of the Dying, trans. Edmund Jephcott, 1985, pp. 66 and 67).
In the brief comments I managed at my mother's funeral, I quoted another passage. ‘Death’, Elias wrote, ‘is a problem of the living. Dead people have no problems.’
My mother was born into a poor-but-respectable family in Stanley Baldwin’s Britain, and she finished school at 14 to go to work, which was typical of a girl in her class and time and place. And despite crossing an ocean and ascending into the relatively comfortable lower reaches of the post-war American middle class, she remained indelibly marked by those origins, which only seemed to emerge more and more during the last decade and a half of her life.
One might think it odd, then, to remember her with words borrowed from an academic, the founder of figurational sociology – and a German no less. (Albeit one who was a victim of the Nazis and eventually became a British citizen.)
However, I was pleased to find that the words I had groped for turned out not merely to be the unfortunate affectation of a son with Too Much Education: in talking to the woman who had supervised my mother’s hospice care, I discovered that Elias’s book – with its condemnation of the ‘veil of unease’ modern society had thrown around death and the resulting isolation of the dying that this caused – had been one of the works that had inspired her to do what she was doing.
And what she and her colleagues were doing was impressive indeed. Like my mother, my father (two decades earlier) had died at home, cared for by my mother with the assistance of hospice.
Watching the relentless approach of his death over 18 months had made a strong impression on my teenage brain, as you might guess. In any case, since I came late in my parents’ lives – they were in their mid-40s when I surprisingly arrived on the scene – this meant that by the time I was in high school many of their friends (the adults I was closest to) were in their 60s or older, and the usual attrition was already well under way. By the time I graduated, I had carried the coffins of some half a dozen people whom I had loved very much.
What I suppose I’m trying to say is that, fairly early on, it had become clear to me that death was a fairly normal part of life.
(I have no wish to exaggerate my experience: obviously, violent death is something I’ve no direct experience of, something that far too many young people in far too many parts of the world have to deal with. I am not comparing myself to them.)
In any case, I had to think about a lot of the above a couple of weeks ago, when I visited a remarkable exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London.
In ‘Life Before Death’, German photographer Walter Schels offers a powerful meditation on the experiences of dying people. Schels contacted people at hospices and found several who were willing to be photographed shortly before and immediately after their deaths. The result is a series of portraits combined with stories (written by Schels’s partner Beata Lakotta) that – I think – express in a manner that is all too rare the curious mixture of profundity and banality that inheres in the experience of death.
In their low-key way, they manage to pull back the veil, at least a little bit, on the mysteries of the dying.
Joanna Moorhead’s profile of Schels and Lakotta for the Guardian makes clear what an emotional and logistical challenge this kind of project posed. Schels was motivated by his own fears regarding mortality (and his comments about his early life demonstrate that early exposure to death doesn’t necessarily inure one to its terrors). The essay also points out something that echoes Elias’s words that I quoted above:
But, horrifying though photographing the bodies was, more shocking still for Schels and Lakotta was the sense of loneliness and isolation they discovered in their subjects during the before-death shoots. "Of course we got to know these people because we visited them in the hospices and we talked about our project, and they talked to us about their lives and about how they felt about dying," explains Lakotta. "And what we realised was how alone they almost always were. They had friends and relatives, but those friends and relatives were increasingly distant from them because they were refusing to engage with the reality of the situation. So they'd come in and visit, but they'd talk about how their loved one would soon be feeling better, or how they'd be home soon, or how they'd be back at work in no time. And the dying people were saying to us that this made them feel not only isolated, but also hurt. They felt they were unconnected to the people they most wanted to feel close to, because these people refused to acknowledge the fact that they were dying, and that the end was near."
They both feel altered by their work on the project:
Both Schels and Lakotta feel the experience of being close to so many dying people has changed how they feel not only about dying themselves, but how they feel about living - and also, how they would support a friend or relative through terminal illness. "I know now how important it is to be there, or at least to offer to be there, as much as possible - and to not be afraid of asking questions, and of listening to the answers," says Lakotta.She’s absolutely right. It doesn’t make death any less real or painful, of course. Here we reach, as in so many cases, the limits of discourse. But the end of life is one of those times where small gestures and simple honesty can have an enormous value.
Over the last few years of her life, my mother and I spoke quite openly about death. We had some different views on the matter of the afterlife, but, once acknowledged, that mattered far less than you might think. (As Moorhead observes of Schels, ‘He remains, as he has long been, an agnostic, having noticed that believers and non-believers alike showed the same fear of the unknown that awaited them.’)
Although no stranger to self-dramatisation, she faced her end with a clear-eyed stoicism that was remarkable. Don’t misunderstand: she was terrified. But somehow she managed to exude both calmness and a dark sense of humour almost to the end. And then there followed an awful period in which she could no longer express anything coherently. There were occasional moments of lucidity and recognition in her eyes. What was going on behind them, though, remains a mystery. The peaceful expression that, eventually, marked the end of her struggle is difficult to describe in words. But I believe I recognised it in many of the images that Schels captured.
The exhibit runs to 18 May. For those in London, I recommend that you go. Leave yourself some time. This is not something to rush through. Spend a good long time looking at the faces. And read all of their stories.
It is unsettling and saddening and uncomfortable. But it also generates, in the end, a curious sense of hushed tranquillity. (A similar set of emotions, I note, that accompanied my reading of Jim Crace’s powerful novel, Being Dead. Something, as The Wife has pointed out, that is rather more complicated than 'joy'.)
If you’re not in London, a sample of the images is available.
This has become far longer than I intended, so I'll conclude by leaving the last word to Schels (and by thanking him and Lakotta for their powerful work):
"What I was used to," says Schels, who has taken hundreds of portraits during his career, "was people who smiled for the camera. It's usually an automatic response. But these people never smiled. They were incredibly serious; and more than that, they weren't pretending anything any more. People are almost always pretending something, but these people had lost that need. I felt it enabled me as a photographer to get as close as it's possible to get to the core of a person; when you're facing the end, everything that's not real is stripped away. You're the most real you'll ever be, more real than you've ever been before".