Beyond the Ashes Research Project, 2008
In that instant when my mother stopped breathing forever, when her heart and her lungs and her thoughts became silent and her body succumbed to death, our relationship did not. It just changed, for “mourners do not just move on and relinquish the relationship to the lost person, but continue to have a relationship with that lost person or object for the rest of their lives” (Fiorini and Mullen, 2006, p11). Although the body is at first cold, later gone, a presence resides, for death is not a form of erasure. Sometimes it is hard to comprehend that the change has happened; dreams and thoughts set in the past confuse ideas of the present. It is easy to get caught with your head facing backwards.
Facing backwards does not help if one is to move forwards. The bereavement must be looked at in the present if some sense is to be drawn from it, a meaningful pattern produced. The present, being the offspring of the past, does of course have a link to the past that must be examined to highlight the differences, and thus accept them. The ideas behind this are universal, for this research I have used my mother as a case study. To date I have found few photographic works dealing with the body immediately after death (Memento Mori images were actually more common in the Victorian era), and no photographic work after the scattering of the ashes. My research takes place five years after the death.
After the scattering of ashes, or the burial of a body, the deceased eventually returns to nature, and this is what I view as my mother’s current state of existence. Each of the images I have produced contain an item from my mother’s bodily past (her clothing) put into the natural environment where their uselessness and inability to provide their intended uses is highlighted, and consequently the changes, in turn shedding light on the present. The clothing is unneeded, unwanted by the new form of existence, it is out of place and uncomfortable in its surroundings, if left there it will be subjected to the forces of nature and will eventually disintegrate. The past is combined with the present, and then rejected. The present is more powerful; it will not fade or crumble over time.
The result of my research gives conviction to a quote by Peggy Phelan, “my hunch is that the affective outline of what we have lost might bring us closer to the bodies we still want to touch than the restored illustration can. Or at least the hollow of the outline might allow us to understand more deeply why we long to hold bodies that are gone” (1997, p3). This work is the affective outline of what I have lost, and does more to create a meaningful representation of my mother and my relationship to her than a photograph of the way she used to look ever could.
Phelan, P. (1997). Mourning Sex. New York: Routledge.
Fiorini, J., Mullen, J. (2006). Counseling Children and Adolescents Through Grief and Loss. Champaign: Research Press.
Entered into Public Collection (Massey, Auckland) 2009.