Life Before Death

“Life Before Death”

A Stunning Portrait Exhibit on Death and the Last Days of Life

Life and Death photo exhibit

photographs by Walter Schels

My breath was stolen when I looked at the photos of the Life Before Death photography exhibition. Not because of the creep factor, but because of the deep, unflinching look into what it means to be human. Wordless and transient, ‘Life Before Death’ is a study that German photographer, Walter Schels and journalist, Beate Lakotta, embarked upon with a kind of straight forward sensitivity that few are willing to own.

With the permission of hospice patients, they created timeless and poignant portraits of each of them just before death, and again at the time of death. Pictured above, Edelgard Clavey, age 67 said,”I want so very much to die. I want to become part of that vast extraordinary light. But dying is hard work.”

One of the objectives of the quest was to gain an understanding of the process of death and to prepare for it. Surprisingly, the team found that the dying seemed shocked that death was actually happening to them, thinking, as most all of us do, that death is meant for someone else. Beate Lakkotta said so eloquently that at the time of her death, “I would like that people would look at my last face.”

mata-hari 2These images bring to mind the death of Mata Hari. A well traveled exotic dancer of the early 1900s, Mata Hari was accused of being a double agent during WWI. Mata Hari was sentenced to death in France in 1917, and as she stood before her executioners, poised with rifles, she chose not to wear the blindfold offered to her. Instead, she looked straight into her own death.

I admire that.I can only hope I might have the courage to look death in the face like that. We live in a society that is in a sort of death denial.We think it is something that happens only to others, and we are shocked when it arrives at our door.

As a culture, I think we do a poor job of preparing for the most important and potentially the most elegant moment. Other cultures do better than we. The Native Americans would chose a good day to die. Perhaps they still do. We all want to die with dignity, but the less we address death, the less likely that will be.

The Wellcome Collection of London featured this exhibit in 2008. In our Instagram world, it deserves not just another look, but a frequent review; a reminder to consider the importance of how we die, and the inspiration to define our own idea of a good death and how we want to meet it.


Wellcome Collection


Eye Witness to History

Photographer Walter Schels

ABC News