March 1, 2011
When we think about death not many of us consider the actual gunk that bodies leave behind — the fluids and gases of decomposition. In the case of murder, suicide or unexpectedly fatal illness, things are not likely to be pleasant or tidy.Sarah Sudhoff takes portraits of these messes. She shoots swatches of material collected at death-site cleanups in a series called At the Hour of Our Death.
“My intention with the images is not to be shocking or gory,” says Sudhoff. “I can understand how some people might see them as being so; especially those who have never witnessed a severe injury or illness or the death of a loved one.”
Originally Sudhoff planned to photograph scenes of death before and after the work of cleanup crews “juxtaposing the event with the absence of the event” but she was roundly ignored by the companies she contacted. The project took a new direction after Sudhoff met a clean-up crew returning with material from the scene of a suicide.“
I was shown an oval shaped section of mattress which had been removed,” says Sudhoff. “Visually these smaller, concentrated fragments of evidence grabbed my attention. The stains from this person’s passing transformed the ordinary beige mattress into beautiful hues of yellow and red.”
There’s a good chance Sarah Sudhoff has thought a little more about death than the average thirty-something. In 2004, she went through treatment for cervical cancer. In her series that followed, titled Repository (NSFW), Sudhoff viscerally photographs hospitals, morgues and medical museums with herself as a model.
“My experiences with illness and death are not out of the ordinary,” says Sudhoff. “However, my understanding of my own mortality and those of my loved ones has been by effected by experiencing different manners in which people can and do die.”
Without chemical intervention, dead bodies degrade rapidly. When a human heart stops, gravity pulls blood to the lowest points of the body, skin adopts a chalky pallor and, with the onset of rigor mortis, calcium ions move into muscle tissue. Bacteria within the corpse rapidly multiply and — if the mouth is not ajar — escaping gases push it open. Expect this noxious sigh about three hours after death. In the absence of embalming and/or refrigeration, putrefaction kicks in after 48 hours. The flesh — now a creamy consistency — turns black where it is exposed. Decomposition speeds up; the body collapses. As the body dries out, some surfaces may develop mold; cheese-like odors come to the fore.
These are the realities that Sudhoff sees as whitewashed for the average person, with an alienating and dissociative effect on our view of death. She is not comfortable with the impersonal clean-up job that characterizes our funeral industry. Her photographs of stains on fabric – stains that are the result of exiting body fluids after death – are part memorial to the deceased and part protest against the denial shrouding death and decay in our culture.
“People are no longer dying under the care of an immediate family member,” says Sudhoff. “This care and clean up is hired out. I am not making a judgment on this practice but rather suggesting that these actions remove us from the eventuality of what is to come.”
It’s common practice, for example, to preserve a corpse in order to present it as if it were still living during an open-casket funeral. It gives us finality, but not reality. U.S. laws on the treatment of bodies are determined by individual states, though it is generally required that corpses are refrigerated and embalmed within 24 hours. Embalming on a large scale was first ordered by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War to ensure families received well-preserved bodies of dead soldiers since transporting the dead home took weeks.
And her own inevitable demise? Sudhoff is keenly aware of the business of death.
“I have already communicated my final wishes to my family,” she says. “I do not wish to become the property of an undertaker. I do not wish my body to be drained and pumped full of chemicals and placed inside a fancy facade. Rather, I want my body to be cared for by those who knew and loved me. To be buried in a dirt grave or wooden box. Simple, straightforward and personal.”