Friday, June 19, 2009

A matter of life and death

click photo to enlarge
"It's a funny old world - a man's lucky if he can get out of it alive."
W.C. Fields (1880-1946), U.S. actor, in film "You're Telling Me", 1934

"Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where's it going to end?"
Tom Stoppard (1937- ), English playwright, from "Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead", 1967

"Death is nature's way of telling you to slow down." Graffito, London, 1978

Death happens very day - to individuals and to groups of people. The modern media overflows with reports and images of death. Yet, despite its ubiquity, and even though it is something that will happen to us all, modern society isn't particularly good at dealing with the subject in a straightforward way. We are good at incorporating multiple deaths in a cartoonish way in an "action" movie. And we're very good at alluding to the subject through humour, as the quotations above illustrate. But, when it comes to a funeral, or talking about our own death or that of those we know well, we're sometimes lost for words. Perhaps that's because, where we can, we shuffle the everday act of dying out of our sight, into hospitals and hospices. The past was more open about these things. Death commonly happened at home, involved young people more than it does now, and was attended by a more prescribed ceremony.

A few days ago I was trying to decode this memorial, in the church of St Laurence, Ludlow, in Shropshire. It records the death of Theophilus Salwey in 1760, and comprises a panel filled with sculpture, above which is a pediment topped by an urn, with an inscribed tablet detailing the deceased placed at the base. It is a fairly run-of-the-mill piece in the Classical style, with a concept and sculpture that doesn't rise above the average. However, it typifies some of the things that the eighteenth century had to say about death. The rather podgy putto (cherub) sits on a pedestal praying for the soul of Theophilus. To its left is an open book signifying that he was an open, honest man of learning during his lifetime. Next to it is his coat of arms, a reminder of his high status in society. Linking these two are acanthus leaves, a symbol of immortality in Classical civilization. To the right of the pedestal is a prominent skull, marked as aged by its scattered teeth, along with a few large bones. These, of course, signify death. They are balanced on a pile of closed books - a metaphor, surely, for a life that has ended. Then there is a snake with a bird-like head about to bite some fruit. The serpent's body is wound into a circle. Does it allude to the story of Adam and Eve? More likely the circle signifies eternity once more, because the items to the left of the cherub are concerned with life, while those to the right are about the afterlife. Interestingly the acanthus leaves cross from one side to the other perhaps suggesting that death is conquered through faith, and that after we leave our earthly existence life continues in heaven.

Whatever one makes of this Christian iconography sprinkled with Classical details, it can't be denied that it results in a memorial that confronts physical death more directly than is the case with the gravestones of the last hundred years. I decided to photograph it in a way that captures the main details of the central sculpture, but emphasises the, to our modern sensibilities, rather disturbing skull, so went for this diagonal composition.

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 18mm (36mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f3.5
Shutter Speed: 1/125 seconds
ISO: 400
Exposure Compensation: 0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On