In most societies, as it is in Japan and Australia, death and funerals are often considered taboo subjects which people avoid talking about. “Death” and “dead” are often rephrased as “loss”, “gone” or “passed away”, and the words “the deceased” or “remains” are used instead of “dead body” and “corpse”. However, most people do not even realise how death, as a concept, has been sanitised, and this includes a widespread denial of death. It seems like our society is sanitised quite well, and we don’t have many opportunities to see a fact of death. Many of us do not die at home any more, and family members do not have to clean the dead body themselves and dig the grave like people used to in the past.
Some argues whether denial of death exists in our society. Throughout art history, the subject of death has rather motivated many artists to create work including Vanitas or Memento mori, favoured genres from the 15th century torough to the 20th century. The subject has not lost is appeal for contemporary artists, either.
However, during the field research on funeral directors in 2013, I witnessed the behind the scenes activities of funeral homes. Some of them shocked me, and some also made me wonder why we are not familiar with these images.
Some facts of funeral and burial processes are hidden from the public eye, and impressions of death and funerals are carefully sanitised in our society.
I took a picture of garbage bin at crematorium. I was shocked to see some material which used to be a part of someone’s body displaced in the garbage bin. Logically, those metal parts cannot be a part of our ashes and it makes sense that these wastes are disposed of in the bin. However, I felt very uncomfortable seeing this. It reminded me of the remains of Auschwitz victims during Nazi era. Everyone of us, whoever it is, ends up in a same way when it comes to death. This idea made me feel uneasy.
Another day, I attended the funeral and burial ceremony with the permission of the funeral attendants. I captured a few shots and started to wonder around to take more images of the cemetery when it finished. After all the attendants left, a few men and a bobcat approached the burial site, and started working there. There was no sad dramatised music or the solemn rituals. This was the ‘real burial’ after all the ceremonies were conducted in a calm beautiful manner.
Again, it is logical to think about using heavy machinery to bury the body. However, I was shocked to witness this as I had never seen this before, and realised how much of the ‘real’ facts of burial are carefully sanitised.
I also captured the storage room at one of the funeral homes. Among all the regular paper work, containers of ashes were also stored very neatly. I felt awkward to see those ordinary objects which we see used in everyday businesses, sitting together with containers of ashes. Those containers were labelled with the names and addresses of the deceased. There was one container with the hand written note that said ‘not paid’.
Cremator and Control Panel
Process of cremation is not widely known, either. This is the cremator with the front door opened for me in order to observe inside. This is normally shut completely during the process. The cremators are all controlled by computers these days. Temperature, oxygen levels, and length of cremation are all well managed.
After the cremation process is complete, all the remains are swept into a metal container. When we think about ‘ashes’, we often imagine just a powdery substance, however, the remains of the human body normally contain many chunks of bones.
When the temperature of the remains are cooled down, they have to be taken away with metal objects, and then the bones are ground down. The tools and the actual procedure vary depending on the crematorium. This man here wears a mask to avoid inhaling the powdery substance. Behind him is one of the cremators they use in this facility.
All the metal remains, such as coffin nails or artificial limbs are separated with a magnetic stick. And then they separate big substances using a sieve.
After the cremation, some remaining is quite chunky and it needs to be grinded down to become ashes. A few lead balls are inside and the machine goes round like a washing machine.
Exhibitions and research outcomes
- 2015 For Grief: A photographic social documentary of funeral directors and their experiences, published in Create World 2015 conference proceedings, AUC (pdf is available from Research Gate)
- 2015 For Grief: A photographic social documentary of funeral directors and their experiences, CreateWorld 2015 conference, Griffith University
- 2014 ‘For Grief’ Things we avoid talking about: Society’s denial of death and the stigmatisation of funeral directors, Life of Things Conference, University of Queenslad
- 2013 ‘For Grief’, Group exhibition ‘liminal’ at the Arts Centre Gold
See also the final video work ‘For Grief’ utilising these ‘Not forbidden, but hidden’ images.
‘Not forbidden, but hidden’ is referenced from:
Walter, Tony. 1991. “MODERN DEATH: TABOO OR NOT TABOO?” Sociology 25 (2):293-310. doi: 10.1177/0038038591025002009.