Life Before Death: Overcoming the Fear of Death Through Postmortem Photography

 German photographer Walter Schels and journalist Beate Lakotta set out to dispell their shared fear of death by photographing terminally ill people perimortem and postmortem in the series “Life Before Death”. Beate Lakotta and Walter Schel have been married for over twenty years; Schel is 30 years her senior. The two are well-aware Schels will most likely die long before Lakotta, an event which they both fear. Walter Schels grew up near Munich, Germany during the final years of World War II; His own home was bombed as a child and he saw many victims of the air raids. He said the horrors he witnessed in childhood caused him to spawn a deep fear of death, “I was afraid of death and coffins my whole life and I avoided seeing any dead bodies, even those of my parents.”. In order to find subjects willing to participate in the project, the couple visited hospices in Hamburg and Berlin. Surprisingly, many patients near death wanted to participate in the project, eager to speak about their prognosis with someone outside of friends and family. Both subjects and loved ones had to agree upon participating, and only a small few chose to back out of the project. In the end, Schels and Lakotte interviewed and photographed 26 people who were severely ill and near death. For an entire year as the project was underway, the two were unable to work on any additional projects; They were on-call 24/7, ready to complete the postmortem photography portion in the event one of the subjects passed. Schels had previously worked on a series depicting birth, stating his fear of death was so intense all he could think was, “At the end of this birth will always be death.”. Although the series has had a deep reaction with many people, Schels insists he wasn’t trying to get across any message with the touching photos, only trying to “selfishly” rid himself of his fear, stating, “I hoped to lose my fear by doing this project where I had to confront myself with death. I am old enough to think about my own death so it was obvious to for me to close the circle between birth and death by doing this project.”. The powerful black and white portraits have been published into a book; The artist chose to use black and white photography to focus more on form and color. Lakotta said of the series, “Its like cement. That cold, that hard, and that heavy.”. According to Schels, “We both cried during this time more than ever before. It was impossible for either of us to deal with the physical death and, even more, the mental pressure on our own. Even now we still have to fight against tears when we get touched at certain points [in the series].”. Although the fear of death may still remain for the two, now Schels knows, “Death is ruthless. It is better to be prepared.”.

Elly Genthe, 83

First Photographed December 31, 2002
Elly Genthe was a tough, resilient woman who had always managed on her own. She often said that if she couldn’t take care of herself, she’d rather be dead. When I met her for the first time, she was facing death and seemed undaunted: she was full of praise for the hospice staff and the quality of her care. But, when I visited again a few days later, she seemed to sense her strength was ebbing away. Sometimes during those last weeks she would sleep all day: at other times, she saw little men crawling out of the flower pots who she believed had come to kill her. “Get me out of here”, she whispered as soon as anyone held her hand. “My heart will stop beating if I stay here. This is an emergency! I don’t want to die!”
Died January 11, 2003
Gerda Strech, 68

First Photographed January 5, 2003
Gerda couldn’t believe that cancer was cheating her of her hard-earned retirement. “My whole life was nothing but work, work, work,” she told me. She had worked on the assembly line in a soap factory, and had brought up her children single-handedly. “Does it really have to happen now? Can’t death wait?” she sobbed. On one visit Gerda said, “It won’t be long now”, and was panic-stricken. Her daughter tried to console her, saying: “Mummy, we’ll all be together again one day.” “That’s impossible,’ Gerda replied. “Either you’re eaten by worms or burned to ashes.” “But what about your soul?” her daughter pleaded. “Oh, don’t talk to me about souls”, said her mother in an accusing tone. “Where is God now?”
Died January 14, 2003

Michael Lauermann, 56 

First Photographed January 11, 2003
Michael Lauermann was a manager. A workaholic. One day he just keeled over. At the hospital they said: “Brain tumour, inoperable.” That was six weeks ago. Lauermann doesn’t want to talk about death, he’d rather talk about his life. How he managed to escape the narrow confines of his native Swabia and go to Paris. Studies at the Sorbonne. Baudelaire, street riots, revolution, women. “I really loved life,” says Lauermann. “Now it’s over. I’m not afraid of what’s coming.” There is no one by his side, that’s his choice. That’s not the way his life was. But he has no regrets. He even derives a certain enjoyment from this advanced stage of the illness. Free and easy, a kind of weightlessness. He feels as if his body were fading away. He is not in pain. “I will soon die”, Lauermann says. Three days later there is a candle burning outside the door of his room. It indicates he has passed away.
Died January 14, 2003

Michael Föge, 50

First Photographed January 8, 2003
Michael was left part-paralysed and unable to speak by a brain tumour. His wife communicated with him by squeezing arm: “I could feel his vitality. We had fun,” she said.
Died February 12, 2003
Roswitha Pacholleck, 47
First Photographed December 31, 2002
“It’s absurd really. It’s only now that I have cancer that, for the first time ever, I really want to live,” Roswitha told me on one of my visits, a few weeks after she had been admitted to the hospice. “They’re really good people here,” she said. “I enjoy every day that I’m still here. Before this my life wasn’t a happy one.” but she didn’t blame anyone. Not even herself. She had made peace with everyone, she said. She appreciated the respect and compassion she experienced in the hospice. “I know in my mind that I am going to die, but who knows? There may still be a miracle.” She vowed that if she were to survive she would work in the hospice as a volunteer.
Died March 6, 2002  Barbara Gröne, 51
First Photographed November 11, 2003
All her life, Barbara had been plagued by the idea that she has no right to be alive. She had been an unwanted baby: soon after her birth, her mother had put her into a home. But she had a strong survival instinct, and became very focused, she said, very disciplined in the way she lived. After much hard work, it seemed that life was at last delivering her a better hand. But then the cancer struck: an ovarian tumour, which had already spread to her back and pelvis. Nothing could be done. Abruptly her old fears returned: the familiar sense of worthlessness and sadness. At the end of her life, Barbara told me that she was overwhelmed by these feelings. “All my efforts were in vain”, she said. “It is as though I am being rejected by life itself”.
Died November 22, 2003
Heiner Schmitz, 52
First Photographed November 19 2003
Heiner was a fast talker, highly articulate, quick-witted, but not without depth. He worked in advertising. When he saw the affected area on the MRI scan of his brain he had grasped the situation very quickly: he had realised he didn’t have much time left. Heiner’s friends clearly didn’t want him to be sad and were trying to take his mind off things. They watched football with him just like they used to do: they brought in beers, cigarettes, had a bit of a party in the room. “Some of them even say ‘get well soon’ as they’re leaving; ‘hope you’re soon back on track, mate!’” says Heiner, wryly. “But no one asks me how I feel. Don’t they get it? I’m going to die!”
Died December 14, 2003
 Peter Kelling, 64
First Photographed November 29, 2003
Peter Kelling had never been seriously ill in his life. He was a civil servant working for the health and safety executive, and didn’t allow himself any vices. And yet one day he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. By the time I met him, the cancer had spread to his lungs, his liver and his brain. “I’m only 64,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t be wasting away like this”. At night he was restless, he told me, and kept turning things over in his mind. He cried a lot. But he didn’t talk about what was troubling him. In fact he hardly talked at all and his silence felt like a reproach to those around him. But there was one thing that Peter Kelling followed to the very last and that was the fortunes of the local football team. Until the day he died, every game was recorded on the chart on the door of his room.
Died December 22, 2003 Edelgard Clavey, 67
First Photographed December 5, 2003
Edelgard was divorced in the early eighties, and lived on her own from then on; she had no children. From her early teens she was an active member of the Protestant church. She contracted cancer about a year before she died, and towards the end she was bed-bound. Once she was very ill she felt she was a burden to society and really wanted to die. “Death is a test of one’s maturity. Everyone has got to get through it on their own. I want very much to die. I want to become part of that vast extraordinary light. But dying is hard work. Death is in control of the process, I cannot influence its course. All I can do is wait. I was given my life, I had to live it, and now I am giving it back”.
Died January 4, 2004Jannik Boehmfeld, 6 
First Photographed January 10, 2004
Jannik was only four years old when doctors detected a rare type of brain tumour. Four months later his mother, Silke was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was determined to stay strong for the sake of Jannik and his little brother Niklas, but her prognosis was bleak; She survived her son who died just 25 days after his 6th birthday.
Died January 11, 2004    Wolfgang Kotzahn, 57
Fist Photographed January 15, 2004

There are colorful tulips brightening up the night table. The nurse has prepared a tray with champagne glasses and a cake. It’s Wolfgang Kotzahn’s birthday today. “I’ll be 57 today. I never thought of myself growing old, but nor did I ever think I’d die when I was still so young. But death strikes at any age.”. Six months ago the reclusive accountant had been stunned by the diagnosis: bronchial carcinoma, inoperable. “It came as a real shock. I had never contemplated death at all, only life,” says Herr Kotzahn. “I’m surprised that I have come to terms with it fairly easily. Now I’m lying here waiting to die. But each day that I have I savor, experiencing life to the full. I never paid any attention to clouds before. Now I see everything from a totally different perspective: every cloud outside my window, every flower in the vase. Suddenly, everything matters.”

Died February 4, 2004 Maria Hai-Anh Tuyet Cao, 52

First Photographed December 5, 2003
“Death is nothing,” says Maria. “I embrace death. It is not eternal. Afterwards, when we meet God, we become beautiful. We are only called back to earth if we are still attached to another human being in the final seconds.”. Maria’s thoughts on death are permeated with her belief in the teachings of her spiritual guru, Supreme Mistress Ching Hai; She believes she has already visited the afterlife in meditation. What Maria hopes is that she can achieve a sense of total detachment at the moment of death: she spends most of her time in the days leading up to her death preparing mentally for this
Died February 15, 2004   Klara Behrens, 83
  First Photographed February 6, 2004
Klara Behrens knows she hasn’t got much longer to live. “Sometimes, I do still hope that I’ll get better,” she says. “But then when I’m feeling really nauseous, I don’t want to carry on living. And I’d only just bought myself a new fridge-freezer! If I’d only known! I wonder if it’s possible to have a second chance at life? I don’t think so. I’m not afraid of death — I’ll just be one of the million, billion grains of sand in the desert…”
Died March 3, 2004

  Beate Taube, 44 

First Photographed January 16, 2004
Beate had been receiving treatment for breast cancer for four years, but by the time we met she had had her final course of chemotherapy, and knew she was going to die. She had even been to see the grave where she was to be buried. Beate felt that leaving her husband and children behind would be too difficult and painful if they were with her. At the moment of her death she was entirely alone — her husband was in the kitchen making a cup of coffee. He told me later that he was disappointed that he couldn’t be with her, holding her hand, but he knew this is what she had always said, that dying alone would be easier for her.
Died March 10, 2004  Elmira Sang Bastian
  First Photographed January 14, 2004
Elmira Sang Bastian was most likely born with the tumour that, by the age of 17 months, had taken over almost her entire brain. Her mother, Fatemah, refused to give up hope. She prayed: “Dear God, now it is in your hands. If it be your will, let a miracle happen. Or is it selfish of me to want to keep my daughter? Was it your plan that she wouldn’t remain with us for long?”
Died March 23, 2004  Rita Schoffler, 62

First Photographed February 17, 2004
Rita and her husband had divorced 17 years before she became terminally ill with cancer. But when she was given her death sentence, she realised what she wanted to do: she wanted to speak to him again. It had been so long, and it had been such an acrimonious divorce: she had denied him access to their child, and the wounds ran deep. When she called him and told him she was dying, he said he’d come straight over. It had been nearly 20 years since they’d exchanged a word, but he said he’d be there. “I shouldn’t have waited nearly so long to forgive and forget. I’m still fond of him despite everything.” For weeks, all she’d wanted to do was die. But, she said, “now I’d love to be able to participate in life one last time…”
Died May 10, 2004

 Jan Anderston, 27

 First Photographed April 8, 2005

Jan Andersen was 19 when he discovered that he was HIV-positive. On his 27th birthday he was told that he didn’t have much time left: cancer, a rare form, triggered by the HIV-infection. He did not complain. He put up a short, fierce fight – then he seemed to accept his destiny. His friends helped him to personalize his room in the hospice. He wanted Iris, his nurse, to tell him precisely what would happen when he died. When the woman in the room next to him died, he went to have a look at her. Seeing her allayed his fears. He said he wasn’t afraid of death. “You’re still here?”, he said to his mother, puzzled, the night he died. “You’re not that well,” she replied. “I thought I’d better stay.” In the final stages, the slightest physical contact had caused him pain. Now he wants her to hold him in her arms, until the very end. “I’m glad that you stayed.”

  Died June 14, 2005

 More Photos from ‘Life Before Death’
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Photos and descriptions courtesy Walter Schels, Beate Lakotta, The Wellcome Collection and BBC, The Guardian and Feature Shoot
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If you enjoyed this article, you might also like Possible Relatives: Tina Enghoff Photographs Homes of the Recently Deceased, The Genesee Hotel Suicide, The Most Beautiful Suicide, The Seven Stages of Decomposition, Everybody Poops: The Postmortem Edition and Burying the Dead is Killing the Planet

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1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    So incredibly moving.

    I remember Nan, a couple of weeks before she died, asleep in her room, fading away, a look of perfect rest on her face. It was the last time I saw her – a bittersweet memory.

    To sleep, perchance to dream…

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