Embrace Death – The Dead and Alive Project
What if you could talk to your deceased relative – your child, spouse, or grandmother? What if you could take him or her out of the grave once a year, change her clothes and talk with her? What if you could hold your daughter, dead for four years, in your arms and say goodbye again. Or say hi to a beloved wife, who is dead but not gone.
Yohannis with wife Martha, dead two years. Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia
Most of us wouldn’t embrace our dead for many reasons. I would worry others might think I was a psycho. Also, it’s criminal to do so in most Western societies. And we might not have conserved the body correctly so it would be messy. Most of all, we in the West do not take the dead out of the coffin because we are terrified of dying and do our best to deny death, repress it and keep it out of our sight. Then we enjoy it in our fictions, as zombies and vampires and ghosts.
But in Indonesia the dead are alive, just in another dimension. At the Ma’nene ritual, people take relatives out of the tomb, clean them up and dress them in new clothes, talk to them, and then return them to the tomb.
The dead are dead and alive.
Gertruide Agostina Tandikarrang died in 2007 at the age of 67 and is dug up in 2017 at the Ma’nene ritual in Pangala, Tana Toraja, Indonesia
On Instagram I came across photographs of death rituals taken by Danish photographer Klaus Bo. He has spent the last seven years working on the project Dead and Alive traveling the world to document how different cultures around the world handle death and their dead.
In the Philippines, for example, a family can collect money to pay for a funeral by renting karaoke and gambling equipment and have people gamble or sing next to the open coffin. Part of profits then goes to the burial.
In Ghana the deceased can be buried in a coffin reflecting his trade. A chicken farmer is buried in a coffin in the design of, yes, a chicken. A fisherman is buried in a coffin the design of a fish (being an academic, I might be buried in a coffin the shape of a mac book …).
The photographs were so amazing, I had to interview the photographer. In a culture so obsessed with youth and beauty that people no longer want to grow old, what can we learn from the dead? I met Klaus Bo at Funebariet, where there is an exhibition of his work, and asked him 10 questions.
Danish photographer Klaus Bo
1) How do we in the West handle death?
We repress death and the physicality of death. In Denmark the ceremony in church is half an hour, then you go and drink coffee for two hours and that’s it. In Nepal a burial takes six days and you gather the whole family for that time. You have time to grieve and the family is together. You consolidate family ties in death. You don’t have it done with in a couple of hours. Not long ago, here too, a dead person would be displayed for three days for people to come and pay respects. Today, many don’t even see the dead person. I want to see the deceased and touch the skin with my fingers so I can feel death.
Karaoke to collect money for a funeral
2) How do other cultures handle death?
Well, in Indonesia they take out the dead in a ritual to honor their forefathers where they clean the body and dress it and talk to the deceased. The dead is not gone, she or he is dead and still alive, just living in another dimension. They treat their dead with the same respect as when they were alive. And they keep the dead in the home until they can sacrifice a water buffalo so the spirit can enter Puya (their Paradise). If a dead person is feeling bad in the afterlife, the family will unite and dig up the dead to bring the dead at ease. If the family members live in another country, they fly back to their home country. Death unites people.
3) Do you think we have a soul or a spirit?
I don’t know if death is the end, I think there is more. I don’t know if we should call it a soul or a spirit, but the people I know who died, they come back and talk to me. Not in my dreams, but in day time. You might call that my thoughts or fantasies. I cannot be the judge of that. Rane Willerslev, the director of The National Museum, leaves it an open question if there is a life after death. I am sure there is more in the world than what we see. And when people die in a hospital or nursing home, the staff opens a window so the soul can exit the room.
One of my pictures from Haiti is of a dead woman and a man pouring alcohol over her. That looks like oil, but it is actually alcohol. When she entered the voodoo church they held a ritual for her, where one of the voodoo spirits chose to possess her. This spirit has been her guardian angel in her life,and it must be extracted from her after death or it will become a ghost. To call this spirit out, the priest offers it alcohol and peanuts. Then he can capture it in a container. They have a complex spirit belief with 423 spirits divided into 21 divisions.
Pulling out the voodoo spirit Damballah from a young dead woman. Port-au-Prince, Haiti
4) It looks so colorful, unlike death in Denmark
Yes, for example in Ghana where they have coffins that reflect the work or passion of the departed. This funeral takes only one day, but anther type of funeral among the Ashante tribe is a three-day-long celebration. Other funerals will be announced as public events with posters in the streets. Death is not softened; on the contrary, a poster can announce, “It was a very painful departure.”
My pictures are of ordinary people. Dead and Alive is not about victims of war or catastrophes. It is about ordinary death rituals, where people honor their family. You respect your family and ancestors, also in death. You remember them – and some cultures bring them back into the living room once a year, although they are dead.
Coffin in Volta Region, Ghana, Africa, in the shape of a chicken for chicken farmer Nene Nomo
In Indonesia it is a happy reunion with the dead, not something to do with fear. They are not afraid of death or the dead body like we are. They embrace it, literally. They don’t want to forget the past and the dead are not gone. They are still here.
5) How did this become your passion?
We give death too little thought. As a child I lived near a road crossing where there often were accidents. My mother told me I should stay if there were an accident and wait for the ambulance. I think she said this so I would see that the injured or dead were taken care of and not abandoned in the side of the road. Later, as a child, I became afraid of death and thought a lot about it. I believed that if I fell asleep, I might never wake up. I was terrified of falling asleep.
6) How should we treat our dead?
We should give them more thoughts and have more rituals for doing so. Today we are obsessed with youth. People don’t want to grow old and they don’t want to die. We repress death. I want us to learn from other cultures. I want us to embrace our dead. The dead are not gone, they are alive in our hearts. A woman, that I loved very much, died, and she is forever in my heart. I will never forget her. But after she died, my mother talked to me as if nothing had happened. When I asked why she didn’t talk about my loss and grief, she said, “I am not your psychologist.” The irony is, my mother is, in fact, a psychologist. But she cannot talk about death and grief. Most of us react this way. Death is something to be over and done with quickly. In two-and-a-half hour.
7) What is the goal with Dead and Alive?
I want to make three books that together will document the project. I would like to cover death rituals in the five big religions and all geographical parts of the world. In Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. One should be a coffee-table photo book, one should have longer informative texts, and one should be my travel experiences. I am an explorer and an adventurer. I travel alone, not like a tourist, and I live with ordinary people, not in hotels. I use time to photograph the death rituals. In Ghana I was at five funerals and I spent more than two months in Nepal. This is my life’s adventure.
There are many ways to have faith and believe, I am not saying one is better than another. But we need more rituals to embrace death and come together as families and as people. Life includes death and in the West we are exclude death. We believe life is over when we die. Other cultures think otherwise. The dead may be dead, but their souls remain here and alive.
8) How do you want to be handled after death?
I haven’t given that any thought. If my children want a grave in a cemetery, then that is how it will be. I will let them decide.
Playing with the dead: Coco (2017, Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Coco(2017, Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina)