On Tuesday 5th August 2014 the Harris clan gathered for the funeral of Josh’s grandmother Pat Harris. This was the third family funeral in as many years and we were quite apprehensive about yet another cremation and the possible return of previous painful memories. As she bore her mother’s coffin into the crematorium Jane was conscious of her now ‘orphan’ status and what this might mean both as a daughter and a mother. In a sense we have been caught in the middle of different generational deaths – while we have a good enough word – ‘orphan’ – for a child without parents, we are yet to discover what we should call a parent whose child has died. And while the feelings and the sadness and the pain are so very different we both felt it important we should somehow equate them and make Josh too part of this ceremony for his grandmother. We have a lovely photo of Josh (aged 3) on holiday with Pat and Gerry – sadly one of only a few of the three of them – which we included on the order of service and Josh was mentioned a number of times throughout the day. To be honest this is not easy, we do not want to ‘dilute’ that sense of honour and respect we have for Pat, but at the same time her death and her funeral (as did Gerry’s) wouldn’t seem nearly as significant without Josh being there too. After all he was their grandson and theirs to mourn as we mourn them.
In the end this blending of memories seem to work even though many of Pat’s friends had never met Josh. Compared to the way we said ‘goodbye’ to Josh, both Pat’s and Gerry’s funerals were more mute affairs though we carried forward the idea of inviting people to write messages on ribbons which could be tied to a flower and laid on the coffin as a central ‘doing’ act to the ritual. Although there are strong Jewish roots to the family, our funerals are non religious and perhaps a bit ‘modern’ provoking one elderly relative afterwards to remark “what kind of funeral was that?” Our wonderful celebrant Ian Stirling was quick to respond – “that was a Pat Harris kind of funeral.”
Funerals are of course for the living – and for what we take away from them as much as the memories we bring. We were all very moved by the poem that Jane read at the service and reproduced below. We know now that grief is hard work, maybe not so much for the death of a parent or a grandparent as it is for your child; but work nevertheless. And in that work, and in that experience of grief, inevitably we learn new things, new ways of looking at life. That is the gift our loved ones leave us.
“Comes The Dawn” by Veronica A. Shoffstall
After a while you learn the subtle difference
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security,
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises,
And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes open
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,
And you learn to build all your roads on today,
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans,
And futures have a way of falling down in mid-flight.
After a while you learn
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.
So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure…
That you really are strong,
And you really do have worth.
And you learn and learn…
With every goodbye you learn.
This is one of the last photos we took of Pat, just two months before she died. We had recently collected Gerry’s ashes from the undertakers (this was over a year since he died – why it took so long is anybody’s guess) and Pat had asked that they be scattered around a particular tree in the old family home near the golf courses in Troon. The tree had been given to them as a wedding present in 1951 and was one of many that Gerry planted subsequently in the many years they lived there. But the house now has new owners and we needed to get their permission. We had planned to do this on our next visit but life and death intervened.
It was the day following Pat’s funeral then, that we met again for another special ritual. Jane had asked the present occupiers of the house who kindly obliged – and with considerable grace as their afternoon was about to be disturbed by eight adults and two children, none of whom were dressed in the manner customarily required for the dignified disposal of a family patriarch. Neither of us can remember being so involved in the funerals of our grandparents. In fact we were positively discouraged from even attending. In those days it wasn’t seen at all appropriate that young children should be present on such occasions – something to do with protecting their innocence, shielding them from sadness, from raw feelings. Yet here we were half a century later, on a bright summer’s day wandering around somebody else’s garden, carrying a box of human remains and with kids in tow!
‘With every goodbye you learn …’ And that learning can and maybe should start at any age, best done in the act of doing, of actual participation in ritual. For Pat and Gerry’s great grandchildren, Naomi and Louis, even while they may not recognise the full meaning of this day, hopefully they will remember the weight and the feel of their forebears ashes as no less fearful than the bark on the tree and the dirt in the ground.
Thank you for reading
Jane and Jimmy
For an evocative set of photographs from the day of Granny Pat’s funeral please take a look at this gallery
SAY THEIR NAME, the film we made for TCF was up for an award for the Best Internet Bereavement Resource category of The Good Funeral Awards – and whaddya know – we won it!
Hmmm… Strange trophy perhaps – a minature wicker coffin but given that the event is organised by THE GOOD FUNERAL GUIDE hardly surprising – and its bigger than an Oscar (and lighter than my Bafta!) In effect The Good Funeral Awards are the annual shindig of what we have come to know as the “deathies’. In attendance were the great and the good from the world of funeral directors, celebrants, bereavement counsellors, coffin builders and grave diggers – as well as Pam St Clement (whose on screen death as Pat Butcher in East Enders has clearly touched many a heart) was there to dish out the prizes.
Josh’s death is of course why we are here. If Josh had not died we would not have become involved with The Compassionate Friends, we would not have made their video, and we wouldn’t be standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the most caring, compassionate and enlightened people we have met, because in truth these ‘deathies’ really are such. No morbid bunch of funeral stalkers these, more, this is a movement that is in the forefront of changeing the way we all deal with and talk about death. It truly is a terrible thing, but in a way it has taken the death of our son for us to really find that degree of self knowledge that allows us to be more accepting of death and more comfortable talking about it. To paraphrase one of the delegates Clarissa Tan – recognising “the finality of death is hard, but the uncertainties of life are perhaps even harder” – to talk about death really is to find out more about living.
And thats what we were doing in the run up to the award ceremony, as we joined a dozen or so others in a yurt in the garden of the hotel in Bournemouth. Have you heard of ‘death cafe’s’? Well this was a ‘death cafe’ and they are springing up all over. A bit like pop up restaurants but with death on the menu … a freakish, weird thing to do by most peoples standards maybe, but here atmosphere was relaxed, intimate and unafraid – no one blinked and there were no awkward silences when one member announced she had cancer and we told of our loss. All were equal whatever their story – death as the great leveller!
Back to SAY THEIR NAME and the awards. This was a glittering, champagne laden affair taking the form of all such occasions – “the nominees are …. the winner is” etc. And it didn’t disappoint as we sat nervously clutching each other, ready to be losers but wanting to win. Ah! the competitive spirit that always trumps even the most sober cause. Maybe not quite that sober. Acceptance speech? Jane was brilliant – no blushes and no gushes – enough said. But we can say that representing the film and TCF at the award ceremony was a real honour if only because people have been so positive about it – as per these quotes
“One of the most moving pieces of film that I’ve seen and utterly deserving of multiple awards in testimony to the powerful truths spoken by the parents we saw.” Fran Hall
“Wow that is brilliant (she says wiping away tears) … I hope that I can use this short film in my work. That footage has really helped me especially today since yesterdays funeral of a 15 year old girl so tragically taken is fresh in my thoughts.” Claire
“Really beautiful work – to showcase such articulate storytelling and promote remembrance.” Kathryn Edwards
“I was with each parent and sibling, deeply listening to them name and remember their loved one. It’s a good thing, this.” Kate.
I am still in awe of people who meet death everyday in their professional lives and I wonder what draws them to be undertakers, celebrants or soul midwives (a new one this). I suspect most have had painful experiences, themselves, but instead of hiding them away, they are using them to help us all confront our deepest fear – not of death but of life.
That sleepy picture – the one that Josh used for his business card – the one that has become such a poignant reminder of who Josh was for us. We take it everywhere we go and we took it with us to Vietnam and Cambodia.
It’s a photo of Josh pretending to be asleep. He is not really asleep, he has closed is eyes on my request and in a sense I am in that picture too. You can’t see me but I am there – as a father and as a photographer, two roles, two identities that I cannot imagine being without. The photo was taken as a joke really. I was in the middle of a project taking photographs of people, most of them random strangers I met in the street – but with their eyes closed – and one day, on a rare visit to London, we decided on the spur of the moment to do one of Josh. We were with his brother Joe having a drink on the South Bank – that is Joes hand Josh is leaning against. I thought no more of it until Josh turned up a few weeks later showing us the design for his business card with ‘that sleepy picture’ as the background. It reminded me of the time many many years ago when my father took some of my photos and made some water colours from them. I felt as if there could be no nicer a tribute to my skills and the way I like to see the world. We all like recognition from a parent, do we not. Well ditto in reverse with Josh – I had no idea he thought much at all about my ideas as a photographer (and maybe he didn’t) but to follow them through as a way of promoting his own work (he worked as a video producer for the Ministry of Sound) was very very gratifying.
There is so much in that photograph for me and I could go on for hours about what it meant then and what has come to mean since Josh died. Of the moment we took it I recall being slightly surprised at how both brothers were happy to join in with my weird ideas. But I also I remember how little I was seeing of Josh since he moved to London and how I would savour every moment with him; and I remember how much he had matured since he’d left home and how much I valued his easy unhurried attitude to life. As with all photographs of loved ones who have died there is a terrible tension between that moment of their aliveness at the time the picture was taken and the photographs ability to live on beyond their death as a constant reminder of their absence. There is both pain and joy co-existing in a way that has no equivalent. Particularly so with this image of a boy pretending sleep, the more poignant now depicting as it does, a young man in perpetual sleep.
For this and many reasons then, the photograph now represents a real and continuing bond between the two of us. Unable now to take any further photographs of Joshua I have reworked it in numerous ways since Josh died (see this gallery here ) and from time to time, I take it out of my wallet, place it on a hillside or on a gatepost, or simply hold it in view and photograph it. Somewhere in all this is the idea that if we have a record of Josh on our travels, its proof that we haven’t forgotten him – it is one of the many foolish ways we have of staying in touch with him.
This is Halong Bay, a four hour drive from Hanoi and one of Vietnam’s foremost travel destinations. We wanted to go there, one because it is an amazing sight, two because you get to stay over night on a luxurious junk, but three because it was one of the places we knew Josh had been. And we knew he been there because we have the photographs to prove it.
Josh had traveled to South East Asia on his own but had met these young men in Laos and they rendezvoused again in Hanoi making plans to ride south on motor bikes. Of the five friends pictured here, Dominique and Don (to Josh’s right) and Jesse (second from right) would be with him at the time of the accident. They are the ones who sent us all the photos we have of Josh from his time in Vietnam. They are the sort of photographs you would expect from a young man traveling the world, meeting new friends, seeing new places, and wanting to send a message back home – here’s me over there, having a brilliant time, I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.
But if they are the sort of photos any of us might take as a momento of our travels, as often as not, they aren’t photographs of the actual journey or adventure, or of the variety of moods or the emotions that would accompany it. More often they are of the moments between the highs and the lows, constructed to the give an impression rather than a record of a good time. We take time out of whatever it is that we are doing, specifically to pose with thumbs aloft, or to gather together in a group and smile for the camera or in our case, to pose with our photo of Josh. And for good reason, we are there for the adventure after all not to make photographs of it. Or are we? Is it possible that these days, our travels and our adventures have no validity and possible then no value, unless we photograph them? As a friend mentioned the other day, they confer on us ‘bragging rights’ like stamps in a passport. But it is the one sure way we can prove we were actually there and I know that without these photos (and all the photos we have of Josh) we would be far more lost on our own journey and our own purpose of keeping his spirit alive.
Imagine that we didn’t have a single photograph to remember him by. Not one. Not even as a baby or a little boy growing up. How would that be? Would we forget what he looked like? Did he have short hair or long hair? Did dimples appear everytime he smiled? Was that really a man’s beard or still the down of youth? And without his likeness in a photograph, how long would it be before we forget him altogether? But even if the power of his likeness is overwhelming, does the fact that these are staged pictures, mean that we might lose too soon the sense of who Josh was rather than what Josh looked like. We have no pictures of Josh climbing the steps to that viewing platform or lugging his backpack on board the boat. None of the stuff that would tell us more of how he was possibly feeling. We have no more than the photographic evidence of his presence in Vietnam and they cannot really tell us how confident he was with these new friends; was he nervous about the bikes they had bought, weren’t they just a bit pissed off with cold and the rain. He is not here now to tell the stories behind the photos and without his voice there is no anchor to secure what little we do know of his adventures. He had told us on the phone just how cold the north of Vietnam was in winter time, how pleased he was to buy a replica North Face jacket at half the normal price, but we must use our own imagination to complete a narrative of their trip first to Halong Bay and then south on the Ho Chi Minh Highway.
We don’t know how long Josh spent on Halong Bay. Given the price and the season we suspect his was a day trip. We were visiting in summer and were able to make slightly more of it spending one night on the boat, visiting some caves, eating some fine food and diving in for a swim in the rain. Unlike January when Josh was here, the summer heat is oppressive. It is also the start of the rainy season and when it rains, it rains. It rained all night long and into the morning by which time we had had enough floating luxury.
On our return to Hanoi, we decided to mark Josh’s presence there by scattering some of his ashes in Hoan Kiem Lake. Translated this means The Lake of the Returned Sword after the legend in which the then 14c King was ordered by a holy turtle to return the sword that had helped him defeat the Chinese invaders. The turtle’s descendent is said still to live in the lake and like (or maybe unlike) the Loch Ness Monster, there have been numerous ‘sightings’. To the north of the lake is a small island on which stands the Ngoc Son Temple connected to the shore by a pretty bridge. It was here we felt most appropriate to stand again for a moment, to remember Josh, and to feel a little more connected not just to him but also to the Buddhist traditions that are everywhere part of Vietnamese life. Josh of course was not a Buddhist and nor are we, but being in a country where Buddhism is so strong helped us to understand and to be more comfortable with his death. Remembering and honouring those who have died is such an ordinary part of everyday life in here, that our little ritual, public as it was, provoked little interest with passers by. It was hard to feel grievous, or even that sad. Such has been the welcome we have received in Vietnam. it wouldn’t be until our return home, that I would again feel the full force of Josh’s death, the sharp ache of my boy’s total and forever absence.
To give our ceremony more substance, we again drew on the power of Josh’s photo. We tore the pictures of him from one of the Order of Ceremonies we had used for his funeral and watched as they drifted down in swirly gig fashion to float on the surface. If there had been a current no doubt we would’ve rushed to the other side of the bridge and wait for them to appear as they continued their journey downstream. As it was the ripples on the lake gradually softened these shreds of a life, and Joshua’s image slowly sank beneath the surface and disappeared from view. At the same time we let his ashes trickle through our fingers and into a slight breeze that had quietly begun to stroke the water.
How many times in the last two and a half years have we said goodbye to Josh? Somehow it did feel easier this time. Now that we have witnessed the place where he died, I think we are more secure to let him go. Now that we have found a tradition that allows the dead to continue living without embarrassment, we are more comfortable with the pain of our loss. Now that we have scattered a small part of him in a strange land we are more able to nurture our memories and to construct anew our own special rituals. And as Josh and his death find their place in our own family mythology, so perhaps, we can accept them as a more natural part of the human condition, part of that continuum of stories and legends and narratives that we all need in order to make sense of our lives, whatever our culture.
There was,however, no sign of that elusive turtle.
From this moment, we would leave Josh’s card along with others’ offerings and gifts at shrines and temples all across Vietnam and Cambodia. Buddhism has granted us a gift, and even if we don’t share a belief in an afterlife, the opportunity to borrow from other traditions and other customs has been (excuse the pun) a “godsend”. Because of Josh and his travels, we have been able to reflect on the many ways in which people find a connection with in an inner spirit world, to wonder at the power of collective imagination, and to discover how it really is possible to live with death in your life. Being human has come to mean something so much more since Josh died.
Standing as it does in the centre of Vietnam’s capital city, the Ngoc Son Temple is as much a tourist attraction as it is a religious venue. And as tourist are, so tourists will be. Just inside the front door, sat an elderly man earning a living as a scribe; selling his skills to worshippers and visitors alike. For five dollars we commissioned this beautiful example of calligraphy – we chose the characters with care but I’m afraid I have now forgotten what they mean.
The next day Joe had to fly back home. Jane, Rosa and I flew to Siem Reap in northern Cambodia. There was of course sadness in our parting as well as a certain anxiety that has become part of the baggage of our family life whenever we, as we must, go our separate ways. To let go of the sight of each other has and, I suspect, always will be much more of a wrench since Josh died.
Josh’s plans once he had traveled through Vietnam, was to continue on to Cambodia, back to Thailand and then on to Nepal. Our two weeks in Cambodia represented that part of of his trip he was unable to do. We visited the temples of the Angkor Archaelogical Park and then travelled south to Kampot on the coast and the capital Phnom Penh. There follows, as a conclusion to this post, a selection of photos of scenes and people we met during our time in Cambodia. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Since a young boy I have been drawn to the magic of photography. Hyperreal and pretending veracity it is, I think, the most surreal of artforms. A photograph has the unique ability to capture life, collapsing it into a single moment, while at the same time casting a spell that will outlive us all. Photographs can tell big stories and little stories but always from the past. A photograph always was, though it alludes to being now. It can never be the future yet it breathes with possibility. In a sense then photographs defy time itself and in a sense, you could say that photography is always in ‘Joshua’ time.
Look in any travel guide for Cambodia and you can see fantastic photographs of the temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, Bayon etc. Recognised as one of the seven wonders of the world, they are part of a huge area that was once the centre of the Khmer Republic (9th to 15th c). This was a period of great prosperity but also of continual change, politically and spiritually, with Buddhism and Hinduism alternating as the predominant religion. The ruins are covered with carvings and reliefs depicting various myths, legends and bits of propaganda. Highly symbolic and full of narrative they read like a storyboard for an epic Hollywood blockbuster and they must have expected to be seen as such. Not unlike photographs they are still images that have outlived both their makers and their subjects.
As I wandered around the grounds of Baphuon, this butterfly settled on my hand. I know many people who would say that this was a little bit of Josh’s spirit visiting me for a while. Well maybe, but probably not. And actually it matters not because in that moment I could believe that too; for the comfort it brought, and the stillness it represented. And it hasn’t been the first time I have been seduced into relinquishing my disbelief in some kind of afterlife; the tiny green frog that appear at the foot of Josh’s tree on the day we spread his ashes there; the crow that sat and watced as I ate my sandwich in a motorway service area on the M6; a white butterfly that accompanied us as we walked to the hill village of Tiglio near Barga in Italy. This little butterfly stayed with me for a good half an hour, occasionally flying off to circle around me and land again. Long enough for me to take a few snaps so I could share the experience, authenticate it, tell stories about it – to ‘brag’ about it.
As tourists (as opposed to travelers) it is difficult to engage properly with the history we are walking through, but we do love to brag about our visits to historical sites and monuments. All the more so now that we can achieve this within an instant. Modern technology has given us license to record our presence ‘in’ history, but often only to the extent that we agree with its potential to make it and us into commodities. In many ways we have sacrificed who we really are and where we come from, to a generic and ubiquitous ‘facebook’ image that does no justice at all to the moment or the place.
In common with many cultures, I suspect that I have an unconscious wish to believe that Josh is not really dead, merely sleeping – sometimes I can imagine him opening his eyes any moment now, if only to wink at me. In any case, I have found that my images of people asleep, while the world continues around them, speak to that sense of ambiguity we have between sleep and death.
We are grateful that Josh did not die of hunger or violence, from hatred or in war. In the late seventies, during the time of the Khmer Rouge, over one million Cambodians including many children did suffer such a fate. (this actually represents 1 in 8 of the total population). It was a humbling experience to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Memorial (one of roughly a hundred ‘killing fields’) near the capital Phnom Penh. Most haunting are the thousands of photographic portraits that line the walls of the Museum, originally the Tuol Svay Pray High School which was turned into a torture, interrogation and execution centre by hardliners of the Khmer Rouge. Of the 14,000 people known to have entered only seven have survived. The vast majority were carefully photographed before being brutally tortured and forced to confess their ‘crimes’. Inevitably we will draw a comparison between our tragedy (a single personal death) and the horrors of this mass killing. Not all, but most of these portraits are nameless, their anonymity to a certain extent, protecting us from their real lives, and their real deaths. This is forensic photography at it’s most clinical but also at it’s most revealing. Look at that mother and child, she will know they are both soon to die. And rows upon rows of children and young adults staring forever long past their execution date, maybe the only photographs of them that survive. See how fortunate we are to have so many photos of our Joshua – particularly the one in which he is feigning sleep.
Cambodia is now a young country. 96% of its population is under 60 and only a very few remember the civil war at all. The following photographs are the result of mostly very brief encounters. As portraits they too hide real identities, though their very anonymity may help us connect to a common humanity in which life and death can be, should be such an ordinary events.
Josh died on the Ho Chi Minh Highway near the town of Vu Quang in the north of Vietnam just over two years ago. Two years that have both flown and dragged by. Two years and his death still seems so unreal, so unnatural. The boy that was becoming a man, venturing abroad to discover what life had in store for him – how could he not now be living that life.
Perhaps we have too many photos and film clips of him – so many good memories shielding us from the pain of his death, of his absence; so many happy, vibrant, quizzical pictures of Josh as alive as any could be. Too many good stories that have, in a curious way, built up a fog of uncertainty around the fact of his death; a fact that should have been confirmed when, the day before the funeral, we all four of us stood round his casket and gazed on his lifeless form. We stroked his cold hands and kissed his cold forehead and tried to take in this awful reality. We were with him then for an hour, maybe only half an hour, who knows; time stood still. But hovering in the night air, the question no parent should ever have to ask: “why is our son so quiet; why is he lying in a box?” We were there; his mother, father, sister and brother. In his jeans and T shirt, Josh was there with ashen face, and sightless eyes. We must have known the answer to that question But that was then and this is now and time has discarded the evidence that was once so very clear. If my mind ever told me then that Josh has not and will never return home, my soul has continued to say no, still and forever no; this is not true; he is not dead. Joshua is out there still, wandering somewhere in this big world of ours.
As a family we always knew that one day we would travel to Vietnam to visit the spot where Joshua had his accident. And that day is almost here. We fly out on 16th May. Our initial idea was to continue Josh’s own journey, with a bit of an overlap. We would start in Laos travel through to Hanoi and then journey south to Saigon and from there to Cambodia. This would have been Josh’s plans as he made his way back to Thailand and thence to India and Nepal. Maybe one day Jane and I may well do this, but for now we have decided to concentrate on visiting Vietnam and Cambodia. We will want to soak up the atmosphere, particularly of Vietnam so that we can have a sense of the place that Josh was enjoying so much. Starting in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City officially but still referred to locally as Sai Gon) we will then spend a week in Hoi An before visiting Vu Quang where we hope to meet with the school teacher that spoke English and helped Josh’s friends with the aftermath of the tragedy. Then tracing Josh’s last journey in reverse we will spend next few days in Hanoi including a nightover in one of the many junks that cruise Halong Bay famed for its thousands of small limestone islands.
Joe will have to go back to work after two weeks but Jane, Rosa and I will then fly down to Siem Reap in Cambodia, and gorge on all the temples of Ankgor Wat and the surrounding area, before traveling through to Phnom Penh and hopefully a few days lazing on one of the many tropical islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Thats the plan but who knows, and who cares if it actually works out like that.
What’s important for the four of us, is that the trip is both a kind of pilgrimage as well as a well earned holiday. Josh will of course be with us all the way but we don’t want his death and the sadness we all feel to get in the way of what can also be a journey of discovery. When Josh died we were all changed in ways we never thought possible and certainly never wanted. This trip may well be our chance to find out more about who we have become. I don’t think we are looking for ‘closure’ (as some have suggested) or that after we have been to the site of the accident, that we can then somehow “move on”. Who knows what we will feel, or how we will react. Personally I feel a desperate need to connect with the place where Josh died so suddenly; not so much as a way of imagining a horror of the scene, more as an attempt to encounter a reality, an ordinary everyday reality with ordinary people, people who may wonder why we are there, why we have arrived at this particular bit of roadside. And when we stand silently together, looking for signs, for clues, maybe take photographs of the empty highway, perhaps then we will know that the circumstances of Joshua’s death are both mundane and extraordinary. Both so deeply personal, so individually painful, as well as so universally commonplace. Perhaps then I won’t have to dig so deep, past days and months of waking up to each morning’s cruel reminder, past the continual background noise of Josh’s death, past all the things we have done to create a new life for him, to find that ghost of a memory that tells me, yes I did see him lying there … dead as ever dead can be.
An important moment will be Joshua’s 25th birthday on 23rd May. We will be in Hoi An and it just so happens that the famous Full Moon Festival for May is on the 23rd. Apparently its not at all like the full moon beach parties of Thailand where everyone just gets smashed out of their head – this really is about honouring traditional cultures with lots of poetry and folk music and of course thousands of lanterns. So we’ll definitely be setting one off for Josh.
Watch out for regular postings to this blog while we are a away – check Josh’s Facebook page, Postcards to Josh, and throw in some of your own thoughts and stories to the comments below – with lots of love Jimmy
Last week we survived (is that the right word) the second anniversary of Josh’s death.
Two years ago last Wednesday 16th January Josh was riding along the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a couple of days out of Hanoi and on his way south. Then – accident – we are still not precisely clear what happened – but in a second his life was gone.
That was two years ago and still it’s hard to believe the reality of our lives. Each morning is still a trial – one of having face yet again the enormity of the tragedy – to wake and be brought face to face for the umpteenth time that Josh is no more and that our family of five is now so deplete. All made worse in the days leading up to his “anniversary” or his ‘death day’ as we struggle but want to call it.
Just what does this particular day hold that the others don’t? Do we really want to mark it was we would celebrate a ‘birthday’? We know that many bereaved parents really dread the day and hate the idea that the anniversary of their child’s death should in anyway be separated out from all the other terrible days of our lives. Its only a day, one moment in time that often bears no importance to the actual death and who invented time anyway.
But we think they are important. Last Wednesday, on Josh’s ‘deathday’, we met with Joe and Rosa and had lunch at one of his favorite restaurants in Borough Market, near where he used to work at the Ministry of Sound. We remembered Josh, considered how our lives had changed and made plans for our trip to Vietnam later this year. We placed the card his friends from the Ministry had sent at the end of the table and drank a toast to him and to us. This was our own private ritual, important for us to come together on a significant date and to recognize jointly what we all go through everyday individually. We can’t always be together but if there are times when we can make an ordinary day special and shared with love, then surely josh’s birthday and his deathday are those. The ritual is nothing if not the coming together in an act of shared remembering.
But what was also really comforting about the day were the number of emails, cards and text messages we got – (such a relief from all the well intentioned but disturbing ‘happy christmasses’) and we’d like to share some of these simply beautiful heartfelt messages now –
A card from one of Josh’s old school friends –
“Another year is upon us and although the passing days bring closer the realisation of what it means to be me without Josh, they dont make it any easier. This is a difficult day not just because the world lost Josh but because we are all reminded how fast and relentlessly life goes on…..”
and another –
“I think about you often and your life reminds me to live mine the way I want to and not let things hold me back”
From one of Rosa’s friends
“I am always here for you. These last couple of years I cant even begin to imagine how difficult it has really been and I am here for you every step of the way”
From a friend of ours-
“You will soon be waking to another day, another month, another year without Josh. Have been thinking about you and how much Josh accomplished in his 22 years of life….and how much you have accomplished in his name and memory in the 2 years since he died……..”
From another bereaved parent
“these anniversaries are awful days, we shouldnt have to have them in our diaries, it all just sucks. I will light a candle for Joshua tonight ….”
From a friend whose daughter was born at the same time as Josh
“thinking of you all we will light a candle for josh tonight and leave it burning till morning”
From a neighbour
“Just to tell you that we are thinking of you both as we come up to the second anniversary of Josh’s death. It must be an acutely difficult time for you and all the family. I know you will get support from each other. How to keep going when these things happen so randomly? Its impossible to answer these questions. Just let me know if you want to get out for a walk and a talk anytime.”
These messages have given our family so much strength and really have made a difference. Jane was reminded of the day of Josh’s funeral when she felt her heart would break but realized that she felt safe and held by the love of everyone present.
So much has changed since Josh died. We are changed along with the slow dawning that the pain of losing a child is like no other. Like love, and grief is in the end all about love, it’s a pain that can’t be regulated, medicated, reasoned with or got over. But with the passing of time we are beginning to accept our new lives without Josh, and his absence is easier to live with. But this is a slow slow process and has no timetable. It will be what will be.
So two years on what has shifted? Gradually the fear and anger that is actually a normal part of grief and has at times led people to avoid us, has lessened. And that sense of isolation, which has so much to do with being locked into the moment of Josh life and death while everyone else’s moves on, that too has dissipated and we are touched and thankful to our friends old and new who have found the courage to stay alongside us on our grieving journey.
The drive to understand experience, and make sense of the world is as vital as the need to breathe – to eat. And so it is that trying to understand and give meaning to life’s final moment is equally significant. This may be a vain attempt to make sense of the inexplicable but for the moment the process of coming to terms with and accepting Josh’s death has inevitably raised the issue of our own mortality – the fear it holds, even the release it promises. A year and some months on from this tragedy I am beginning to feel accustomed to my grief. It’s not that life is any easier or that the pain of our loss is any less sharp. It’s just that I know that pain better and my grief is not such a hostile companion.
What I am also beginning to understand is that we are at the start of a new journey with and without Josh. And for this I am deeply grateful to our friend Fiona Rodman, a psychotherapist and very wise woman. The following is an attempt to synthesize some of her ideas as contained in her recent thesis – “Mourning and Transformation – Sifting for Gold.” (MA University of Middlesex)
Sifting for Gold
After I had read Fiona’s thesis for the first time, I had a real sense of a burden lessened; that the grief I had felt for Josh was less complicated and more natural than I had previously supposed it to be. Here was an account of the mourning process, told not just from a theoretical perspective, but illuminated with the real insight from her own personal experience. Fiona’s mother died at an early age, she endured the break up of a long marriage, and witnessed her father lose his own battle to dementia. Her journey – her different journeys of coming to terms with these deaths inform her conclusions of what it means to mourn.
To a certain extent I think I have been caught up with what I thought society had expected of me in dealing with Josh’s death… how to behave, what to say, what to feel. How could it be otherwise. Even in this modern age with its fast changing moral and ethical codes, we are so influenced by long standing attitudes to death and its aftermath, that it seems the only the right thing to do is to rely on the consensus and on traditional ideas when we are trying to find a way forward on the journey through grief. In her essay Fiona, explores the connections and the tensions between personal emotions and public expectations. What I’d like to do here is to try to extract from this necessarily lengthy and rigorously academic piece of work, some of her basic ideas that have helped me understand a little more some of the thoughts and feelings we have all been experiencing since Josh died.
“Sifting for Gold” is concerned with the transformative power of grief. Another’s death, particular someone who is close to us and some one we love, is always a life changing event. This might seem so obvious, it shouldn’t need saying, but until Josh died I hadn’t fully understood how difficult it is for many people to accept this change. Fear of our own mortality certainly kicks in; confronted with the fact of another’s death, or another person’s loss, our thoughts about the inevitability of our own death become so uncomfortable, they prevent us from truly seeing, or at least acknowledging another’s pain. As a family, we have all experienced having to skirt round the issue of Joshua’s death, for the sake of not embarrassing a friend or an acquaintance. Yes, its weird, but to hide one’s own feelings for the sake of another’s shame is, I have found, a common occurrence. All too often, we hear that people just don’t know what to say, but this becomes understandable when you realise that it’s not just that another’s death is such an ominous reminder, but that the bereaved have indeed undergone a fundamental change. How that change is managed (or not) is the subject of Fiona’s essay.
Her own mother passed away when Fiona was in her early twenties. But, it wasn’t until many years later that she discovered that she had not properly mourned her mother’s death. At the time she had felt dislocated and adrift and that there were deep constraints on sharing her feelings with her immediate family. “We were close”, she writes, “as if clinging on to a shipwreck together. We could not however, weep together, fall apart, sob and hold each other.” Her father although loving and loyal, belonged to a generation that had known many war deaths; they were the survivors who had been severely traumatized by the horrors of war but who had learnt to suppress open expression of grief. “Laugh” he would say “and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone”. Fiona is only now aware of how this view had shaped her own emotional responses, leaving her feeling alone in a world where “the role of tears as communication is completely denied.”
The standard model of grieving in 20th century Britain relies heavily on the stoic – our way of doing things has been to keep a lid on our emotions, to be strong and to weep only in private, and to avoid any public display of frailty or despair. And the advice is to put some kind of time frame on the business of processing loss and to find closure – after Josh died a close friend even counseled that to avoid becoming excessively morbid, we would eventually have to ‘forget’ Josh. The idea is that sooner or later we must ‘move on’ in order to regain the composure and the equilibrium necessary to continue with the rest of our lives. To do otherwise is to risk a pathological descent into melancholia and depression and the social exclusion that will inevitably follow.
Death of course is all around us – over 10,000 people die every day in the UK, yet for most of us contact with death is relatively rare and as individuals many us lack the experience as well as the social models to help us deal with grief and those that mourn. And when death happens unexpectedly many of us are understandably but sadly ill equipped to handle the emotions that ensue. “We don’t learn to mourn at our mother’s knee” observes Su Chard in our film ‘Beyond Goodbye’ (Su is the celebrant who conducted Josh’s funeral.) Conflicting feelings of sadness, despair, confusion, anger and guilt, which I’m sure all who knew Josh, will be familiar, need to find expression. But if the emotional climate of society is such that we show only those emotions deemed appropriate for the occasion then what will happen to the inner rage, the impulse to self-destruct, and high levels of anxiety, ambivalence or even the manic laughter that can overcome us from time to time. Not being able to mourn her mother Fiona writes of being exposed to terrible and “unlived emotional states.” Her experience of loss and separation were never really resolved but continued to provoke, “turbulent unintegrated long fingers of pain…that seemed to clamp my heart and block the flow of my being”.
I was faced with a similar ‘block’ when aged 21 (a year younger than Josh) I too was involved in a road accident. I was on holiday with my girlfriend in the former Yugoslavia, when the car we were traveling in was hit by another, ran off then road and fell into a deep and fast flowing river. My girlfriend, Gillian could not swim. She died. I survived. Totally unfamiliar with very unexpected feelings (particularly guilt and shame) and without the necessary understanding from friends or family, (and without professional help) I too now understand that I was unable to process my grief in a particularly healthy way. Much of this really was the isolation that I experienced. Returning to London, I felt shunned by many of my friends who had their own fears of how to behave, as well as my parents need to protect me from extremes of emotions. This left me in a place where I felt completely disconnected both from my girlfriend Gillian, as well as from my environment. At the time I would have seen this as distressing but acceptable, and my attempts to brave my way through it as honorable – the thing to do was to make the best out of a shit situation and to move on. I had the rest of my life to get on with and to allow a tragedy such as this to mark me felt like failure. But I had been marked and I had been changed. And without the adequate means both personally and socially to express my feelings and with no acknowledgement of the importance of the grieving journey, I think I became quite introspective, learning how to cope on my own, actively avoiding close emotional involvement. I lost contact with Gillian’s family and to a degree I lost my way in life.
But does surviving such untimely tragedies or even the anticipated death of a parent have to be such a lonely experience. In retrospect Fiona identified a sense of an “arrested capacity to mourn” in the years following her mother’s death. This led her to explore just what it is within the cultural and psychological life of our society that determines they way we grieve and how mourning has been understood by academics, writers as well as the bereaved themselves. And going all the way back to Freud she discovers that, after a death, it is the way that we understand our sense of self in the world that plays a crucial role in our ability to regain the necessary psychological balance and the stability to continue living as functional human beings. “Self” she posits, can be understood in two different ways – there is the idea of the ‘objective separate mind’ and the idea of the ‘subjective interconnected mind’. The first of these philosophical positions, the idea of the self as a separate finite entity underscores a very western view that we are each (at our core) unique and autonomous individuals existing alongside other individuals in a highly individualistic society. When it comes to processing trauma, of which grief and mourning come high on the list, our way of dealing with it is necessarily an internal and private journey of gradually loosening our attachment to our lost loved one until equilibrium is restored. It’s a finite (even measurable) process which if unbounded becomes pathological – basically you’re sick if you grieve too long.
Contrast this with more contemporary yet still relatively unfamiliar philosophical ideas which shift the emphasis away from the ‘isolated’ self and the separate mind to a more relationally embedded model of the self, in which mourning and recovery are seen as being facilitated or impeded more or less in response to and with the help of others. Searching out and recording the experiences of fellow travelers in grief, Fiona findings were confirmed in two ways. First, whilst previous wisdom was heavily influenced by the pressure to get over it and move on, these new ideas revealed mourning to be a two-fold process with a constant oscillation between deep sadness and attempts to reconstruct life. Now, as I write this, I believe I am in recovery mode. An hour ago I was experiencing one of those painfully raw moments of missing Josh. Later the hurt will return.
The second of Fiona’s findings was that processing trauma is not best achieved in isolation – Fiona writes, “we need others deeply alongside us in our mourning, we need to be known.” Rather than a private, closed, exclusively personal experience, mourning is here seen as an inter-relational process in which dependency on others is vital for us to heal our fractured life, reassert our sense of self and our ongoing being.
It might seem obvious that to share one’s loss and be supported by others can only be of value to the bereaved, but the actual process of mourning extends way beyond any public ritual in which an open (but limited) form of grieving is found acceptable. The funeral, that necessary rite of passage, has more often been seen as providing opportunity for a final farewell, part of a closure rather than the start of a journey through grief.
Many people found that our funeral for Josh was not only deeply moving, but it was also quite unique with its emphasis on creating a symbolic journey in which we carried his casket into the main room at the Matara Centre, on to the next and then out into the night. But if it was remarkable, maybe that’s only because in this country we seem to have lost the idea of a collectivised ritual and its ability to engage in or invent symbolic acts that give meaning to the loss the community is feeling and to the possibilities for healing.
In ‘Sifting for Gold”, Fiona describes her visit to the Musee Branly in Paris (“not like walking into a museum but a prayer”) in which displays of mourning rituals from all over the globe included ceremonial objects that marked death and its journey as being important as much for the mourners as for the deceased; like the carved wooden boat inlaid with mother of pearl, in which the bones of the deceased were finally sent out to sea after the long community ritual.
What is important here is the way a traditional community will come together and create elaborate rituals, in some cases lasting for years, in order not only to register the loss and its impact, but to help construct a voyage to a different relationship with the deceased. As we know in many traditional cultures, the dead remain as valuable spiritual guides for the living.
Our family was hugely supported by our local community in organizing Josh’s funeral and their creative involvement deepens the sense of a shared loss as well as providing the impetus for building a new relationship with Joshua. The viral candle lighting ceremony was highly symbolic of the way we had all been in some way influenced by Josh and could share that with others.
But creating this ritualized journey, (as old as time itself) and the possibilities that holds for a communal sense of loss is not so possible in a world where the individual, the lonely and the private self is the norm.
This brings us back to Fiona’s definition of self, of how we see ourselves, our “self”. Are we unique, separate identities or part of a continuum with the rest of humanity. In both cases of course we need to relate to others, but within the model that Fiona describes as the intrapsychic or separated self, we can survive without the other in the belief that nothing of our own self has been actually lost. Not only that, we can endure the loss knowing that our mourning will be a finite process with a final letting go signaling a healthy outcome to our grieving journey.
However if our view of who we are is based on the idea of our “selves” being part of a commonality of all human experience, (a sense that we all more alike than different) and that we exist as relational beings, then when someone close to us dies, we feel that death as a loss of part of our own ‘self’. I suspect that all those who knew Josh, all those who had any kind of relationship with him, will accept that when he died something inside of them died as well.
CONTINUING THE BOND
Fiona describes the traditional approach to mourning as “a cutting off and a moving on”. But this need to detach oneself from the deceasedhas obscured another aspect of the work of mourning – to repair the disruption to the relationship we had (have) with the deceased.
Fiona describes the anxiety and the rawness at the loss of her mother, remembering in detail her illness and her death as if it were yesterday. “At the same time I could not remember at all. Such was the pain of bringing her into mind that I could not draw on a sense of continuing relationship with her inside me.” Twenty years on and in the light of subsequent losses, Fiona identifies this “continuing relationship” with the deceased as key to regaining the confidence and the stability we need to carry on living, to carry on living with another’s death. She draws on the ideas of psychoanalyst, Darian Leader, that “we need to separate out the loss of the other from the loss of what we mean to them, the person that we were in their eyes”.
That last phrase “the person that we were in their eyes”. Eyes that no longer see; the person that we were and are no more. We lost Josh and what he meant to us, but we also lost that part of us that was Josh and what we meant to him. Fiona desperately misses being a daughter to her mother, “of mattering to her” and I have not only lost a son I have lost my role as a father to that son. No longer can I advise and argue with him, no longer can I protect and admire him, no more long phone calls to gather up his news, no more am I his last port of call.
With Joshua’s death we are changed and as much as we need to come to terms with his, or any death we need to acknowledge our changed selves, something I was not aware of when my girlfriend died all those years ago.
Fiona cites the work of The Compassionate Friends, a self help group that supports parents who have lost their children. By meeting regularly, mourners are encouraged to name and speak of their child and to hold rituals on important dates. Memories of the child and the parent’s grief are in this way validated and held in mutual recognition. “Through this shared space” Fiona writes, “a transformation is facilitated in which the child comes to occupy a different, still living, inside space. The pain that the child is dead and will never again be present in the way that it was, is given room to be, but through a shared space and over time this other internal journey can take place.”
As I read these lines I wondered how this could be possible. With only memories and history to sustain us, with no actual Josh, how could a new living relationship grow inside of me? Then I was reminded of the various creative acts we have done in order to continue our bond with Joshua – the tree planted on a farm where Josh and his friends would often gather, has now become a Mecca for those same friends and family alike, the photographs I have made since he died, the film we produced as a celebration of his life, this website, all are sustenance for our new relationship with him. And they are all necessarily shared and communicative experiences – on Josh’s still active Facebook page we talk to him (Josh we talk to YOU) and in speaking of Josh in these varied ways we acknowledge that new relationship not only with him but with each other.
In not relinquishing, in not cutting off from Josh we are in Fiona’s words “reshaping and continuing the bond in a different way, a way that is not a denial that the relationship has changed forever, but a way that honours the place and the significance of the deceased in ongoing life.”
That our ongoing lives have been transformed by Josh death is beyond dispute. Fiona’s conclusion is that it will be the deep inner work of reframing our “self” in relation to others that will make them worthwhile once more.
The title of Fiona’s essay comes from a line she found in one of Alice Walker’s poems – ‘now I understand that grief, emotional speaking, is the same as gold…’ Yes, there are special treasures to be found in our mourning and grief can be good.
I miss you Josh
Your Dad, Jimmy (July 2012)
Fiona Rodman is a psychotherapist and lives near Stroud in Gloucestershire. She is currently working on her next book – a further exploration of contemporary practices in mourning and grief. To read “Mourning and Transformation – Sifting for Gold” in full please contact Fiona directly –mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
I am particularly interested to find out how any of Fiona’s ideas might resonate with your own experiences – please leave any comments in the box below
Joshua’s younger sister, Rosa is currently studying on a Foundation Art course at Oxford Brookes University. We are reproducing here an essay she has written as part of her course which explores the themes of photography and death and the way we use the medium as a way of creating memorials to people’s lives. In this essay Rosa posits some very challenging questions – how far, she asks, is the act of taking someone’s photograph a subconscious attempt “to protect ourselves for when that person dies?” To answer this she examines the work of three very different artists – the American photographer Nan Goldin who captured some of the most intimate and moving images from New York’s gay scene of the 1970’s and 80’s – London based photographer Briony Campbell’s whose “The Dad Project” was a way of saying goodbye with her camera to her father as he lay dying from cancer – and the work I have produced since Josh’s death, in particular my book “Released”.
I am seriously moved by Rosa’s ability and her desire to use her university projects as a way of understanding what her own work now means in the light of Joshua’s death and for being prepared to share those thoughts with us. (Jimmy)
Making it Real – Death and Photography
In my essay I will be exploring how we take photographs of loved ones with the possibly subconscious aim to memorialise that person after they have died and look at the ways in which we can turn found photos of a lost loved one into prominent memorials of their life.
How far is taking a photograph of someone a response to our fear of death? Is their fear their fear or is it ours? What power does the photograph hold? Does it comfort us in our grief and why? When images of death are all around us, why do we shy away from post-mortem images of people we have known and loved?
I will be structuring the essay around the three stages of taking images as a memorial that I have concluded from some of my research:
– Taking images before someone has died, when they are certainly alive and healthy yet, with the subconscious idea that the photograph will almost certainly outlive them.
– Taking images of someone as they physically die, a concept that is almost unheard of in our culture. I ask could this be a way of helping us prepare for their death?
– Finally, taking and using images of the person after they have died.
NAN GOLDIN – keeping the memory alive
For a long time the work of New York photographer, Nan Goldin has inspired and influenced my own work. She takes very personal and intimate images of her close friends. She photographs them relaxing at their houses, their drug use and abuse and during sex. Nan Goldin’s body of work is often very shocking to the greater public and has frequently acted as an expose of life during the AIDS epidemic. She recorded some of the most intimate moments of herself and of her friends’ lives.
Goldin grew up in Boston, “in the very middle” of a middle class neighbourhood. When Nan was 11 her older sister who was 18 committed suicide. In Goldin’s documentary film, ‘I’ll be your mirror’, she implies that her sister’s death was a catalyst not just for her photography in general but also for the intimate and personal style of her images.
After leaving college she moved to New York’s lower East Side where she began documenting the post ‘stonewall’ gay scene of the late seventies –“instead of dying at 18, I started to photograph.” Goldin now acknowledges that her sister’s untimely death really shaped her photography in a very subconscious way. She reflects on her photography in the documentary commenting that she “became obsessed with never losing the memory of anyone again”. The irony of course was that by the 1990’s many of her subjects were dead either from aids or from drug overdoses. Goldin’s photographs use an intimate snapshot aesthetic and read rather like a private diary made public. The images all show real moments and real people and let the viewer into her life.
Iniatially Goldin took photographs for her personal use. But do portraits taken as a commission or for more public viewing have the same ‘death instinct’? British photographer David Bailey believes they do: “Photography is all about death really… you look at [old] pictures-they’re always dead. You don’t look at a painting and think ‘she’s dead’ but you look at a photograph and think ‘she’s dead!’
Do we all take photographs of the people that we love to capture them in case of death or to protect ourselves for when that ‘subject’ dies? When you are taking an image of a loved one it transforms from just a photograph into a memory, a character and a relationship. This is the element for me, which makes the works of artists such as Goldin so significant and so beautiful.
Cookie Mueller – 1981
‘The Cookie Portfolio’ as Goldin names it, is a series of fifteen photographs taken over thirteen years of Cookie Mueller – “the starlet of the Lower East Side” and the “queen of the downtown social scene”. The images illustrate Cookie’s character and vitality yet also captures her deterioration and eventual death from AIDS in 1989.
“I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. I put together this series of pictures of Cookie from the 13 years I knew her in order to keep her with me. In fact they show me how much I’ve lost.”
“The Cookie Portfolio” is an excellent example of the way a photographic record of anyone can come to have such a power after they have died.
Goldin’s dilemma highlights a basic contradiction in all photographic portraits especially those of people who have then died; their photograph has an incredible likeness of being to the subject, it invites us to accept consolation from their living image yet, it can also a painful reminder that they are now gone.
The last image in Goldin’s Cookie Portfolio is of Cookie in her coffin. It is extraordinary that in a series of photographs intended to keep the memory of her friend alive that she would include a photograph of her corpse.
Extraordinary not just because of Goldin’s fear of losing her friends ‘living’ memory, but more because in her life and her art she is surrounded by the deaths of those close to her yet, this picture of Cookie in her coffin is one of only a very few she has published of a dead friend. Sex, drugs, deviance, yes – death, no.
However, rewind to the nineteenth century and images of dead people, especially babies, were very common, socially accepted and even valued. At this time, infant mortality was very high and a lot of the time there wouldn’t be enough time to make a photograph of the child before it had died. So the families would photograph the deceased openly and unfortunately this occurred often as in those days infant death was more commonplace.
While images of death as part of our daily news intake, such as the killing of Bin Laden, are quite acceptable, people who now want a post-mortem record can face social opprobrium if they were to take a picture or commission someone to do so. People on the television and in the newspapers remain characters and don’t seem to be real people but people don’t want to acknowledge the death of someone close to them by taking a photograph. Similarly, a lot of people live in the mindset that if we don’t acknowledge death by photographing it then maybe it hasn’t happened.
When my own brother Joshua died last year and I went to see his body in the funeral parlour I didn’t take a photograph. It was impossible for me to do so not only because I was using all of my emotional energy to process what was happening leaving no room for the camera, also it simply isn’t the done thing nowadays.
Perhaps for Goldin who lived through her camera and often shielded herself with it, taking the picture of Cookie’s corpse was a necessary confirmation of her death. For me, the support of my family meant that there was no need to record his lifeless form for posterity – above all it was just too painful.
From personal experience I’ve learnt that we tend to shy away from photographs that depict images of the dead especially when the deceased is a loved one. Yet, it is surprising that in popular contemporary culture, there are still few acceptable ways of recording the rituals surrounding death and mourning process. When families get together it is often around important moments such as births, marriages and funerals, the latter being the event least photographed. Unlike weddings, there is no industry for funeral photography or videos. This seems strange to me, as death is the only inevitable event in someone’s life. After my brothers death, we as a family collected all the pictures of Josh that we could – a hugely important part of our efforts to come to terms with our loss; these were of course all pictures of Josh alive. Overnight, they had all become memorial photographs – each snapshot acquiring more poignancy… and over time these ‘found’ images of Joshua have gained even more significance being used over and over again: at the funeral, parties, memorial days, and given to people as gifts. For example, the images below were both images which gained significance from their first use as his business card, now as a memento for people to put in their wallets and on their walls to remember Josh. Like Goldin we were using his photograph as a way of keeping Joshua alive.
Above – the photograph Josh used for his business card
This image was reproduced and given to mourners at Josh’s funeral
Images, like the ones of Josh, seem to become an icon of a person’s life. On the surface we take images to represent memories and relationships but, when a tragedy happens, I have realised that maybe we take images to prematurely memorialise that character and protect ones self from the inevitable. The images grant us with satisfaction by showing an exact visual replication of that person whilst still alive but at the same time the photos will now always be a reminder that they are now not alive.
JIMMY EDMONDS – RELEASED – the photographic illusion
A few weeks later after we received his ashes back from the crematorium, my father, Jimmy Edmonds, started on a photographic project that would be both a memorial to my brother and a record of the way our family was dealing with our loss.
This project was published with the title RELEASED. It can be seen in full here. He started by photographing Josh’s ashes; he captured them pouring through the air and the clouds of dust that they created.
He then experimented with laying the ashes on top of the photograph shown above of Joshua that had gained significance from being used at the funeral and over and over again. When put together, the ashes and the image formed conflicting ideas: on the one hand, we can see Josh alive, with him looking back to us, placing us in an illusion letting us believe that he is still alive, but the ashes tell us that he is most definitely dead.
The thing about a photograph is that even though it captures a moment in time it will almost always outlive its subject matter. My Dad wanted to find a way of making images that more accurately reflected the long process of mourning. Again using a photograph he’d taken of Josh, the one used as his business card, he hand printed them using a nineteenth century technique that used vegetable juice and sunlight – anthotypes. He then combined these bright red images with the ashes and physically stuck the two together. There is no way to fix an anthotype print – in time they will fade. Over time all that will remain will be the ashes of Josh. Nearly all photographs act as an aide-memoir and as such are deceptive. This series of images speaks more to our current reality of life without Josh.
My father was able to use the ashes as a creative material and make some beautiful images not only for the people that knew Josh but also for many people that did not know him. They felt privileged and touched that he had ‘let them in’ to such a tender and normally private part of our family life by witnessing Josh’s actual ashes as a piece of art.
“All that remains will be – all that remains.”
BRIONY CAMPBELL – saying goodbye with her camera
My father had time to think about his project – (when someone dies, it is after all forever!). When Briony Campbell’s father was diagnosed with cancer he was told that he had just nine months to live. Briony decided to document this with a series of photographs and an accompanying video called The Dad Project. Unlike Goldin’s work, this was a very much conscious process where both father and daughter collaborated. Each of them had to think carefully about what doing this project would mean for them both:
“I agonised for months over whether I should attempt to photograph our relationship at all”.
We learn from her video that for her father the project meant getting to know his daughter in new ways and spending the last of his days doing something worthwhile and productive. For Briony it was more of a way to say goodbye. She was able to use her camera as a medium to do this, but I suspect that at times it was also a way to distance herself from the reality of the situation.
“Each day that brought his imminent death into sharper focus, my project became more of a crutch, and more of a member of the family. When we had nothing to be positive about, the project gave us a way to be productive”
For my father the photographic process he undertook was more of a reflection on my brother’s death once he had already gone. Campbell’s project was of the moment and dealt with the emotions she had as her father was dying. She did not know what was going to happen next or when exactly he would die from his terminal illness:
“When you find out you’re going to lose someone you love you don’t know what the story is, so you really can’t plan how to tell it.”
When we think of images of a dying family member many people are likely to conjure up stereotypical images associated with death – morbid and painful images that could capture pain, suffering, fear or a variety of other negative emotions associated with death. Of course Campbell’s ‘The Dad Project’ series includes those images. But Campbell also creates a story about love. She does this by creating beautiful photographs in a hopeless situation. The video includes humorous chats with her father and I found myself smiling whilst watching it. Similarly, amongst the heartfelt, painful images are picturesque images of light and colour.
“If it were a painful moment, I tried to make the picture more aesthetically beautiful”.
“Today we knew he would die soon. I went outside and looked at the sky while we waited for the ambulance.”
The series contains both pictures of Campbell’s father as well as some self-portraits although, I would argue that the self-portraits are images of her father dying too. I think these are some of the most important images in the series as they show her bravery. To let people see you at your weakest and most vulnerable I find really incredible. In my opinion these self-portraits fuse the series together as they put the whole thing into context by showing not only the experience of the father’s illness but also the impact the illness has on his daughter. This has the result of humanising the whole process. Death here is not a news item, but an everyday occurence.
By taking the images of her father with the conscious aim to memorialise the pictures even before he died, to then take images of herself shows a great understanding and coming to terms with death in general. By photographing herself she is essentially preparing herself for when she dies and exploring this through the images – for me, she is memorialising herself in the images using the same idea of taking a photograph to be there when you are dead.
Most of memorial photography exists of images of smiling people aiming to remember the happy times of a person’s life. Campbell’s work is more of a realistic representation of death and includes photographs that are undoubtedly hard to look at, though the series does also include happy and amusing images. By creating a more rounded view of death and dying, Campbell has somehow reduced the fear that many people have of death. I was able to relate to this by thinking back to the funeral we held for Josh. On the day I felt a bit strange that I wasn’t sad all of the time and I felt quite at ease and cheerful at points through out the day – a lot of our friends said they enjoyed the day and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.
Part of life is that everyone has to die. It is inevitable. At the very least, The Dad Project, opens a door to people and lets them in to this delicate journey.
What becomes clear is that although all three photographers are responding to their encounter with death in very different ways, they are all using photography as a way of coming to terms with loss. For Goldin, photographing her friends is a kind of insurance policy, creating mementos for when they are no longer here. Campbell documents the journey into death in a truly collaborative way and my father is trying to produce new images from my brothers actual remains. And by confronting death and making it real they all go some way to dispelling our fears.
Rosa Harris Edmonds
Keep up to date with what I am doing at university and in my personal projects here and here.
Briony’s film, ‘Saying goodbye with my camera’ can be seen here.
Briony’s photographs of ‘The Dad Project’ can be seen here.
Here’s a link to an interview we did with Patrick McNally of THE DAILY UNDERTAKER Patrick asked some very interesting questions about how we organised Josh’s funeral, why we chose to “do it ourselves”, what it meant for us to create our own funeral rite for Josh.
“I was so driven by the wish not to be afraid that Josh was dead but had no idea how to do that but by the end of the celebration of his life I somehow felt a lot less afraid than I had done.” Jane
“Two young police officers had brought us the news of Joshua’s death and for his body to be committed by more unknowns felt just too much – you can’t hug a policeman, neither did I feel like hugging an undertaker – it felt like the only way to properly deal with this was to gather family and friends around and share our grief, and not just for half an hour at the “crem”. Jimmy