We found an empty seat next to the coffin, we noticed the details on the carved wood, and the handles the pallbearers would grasp to carry it to its final destination. Time ran to a trickle, minutes felt like hours. We peered down at the corpse inside the wooden box, and all we could think was that the person had once been alive, had laughed, had breathed…
We felt the weight of death on our shoulders and the smell of flowers was penetrating, the humidity of the room and the thick air made us a little bit anxious. We hated this ritual, we never knew how to deal with the mourning relatives, and we never knew how to help them deal with their pain.
We saw these caskets surrounded by loved ones in rooms decorated with candles and flowers. But hours before, the bodies we had cried over were alone, naked in a cold room waiting to step into the unknown world of death.
The photographer, Cathrine Ertmann, shares the journey of the deceased, from the moment they die until the burial, to understand the process behind the autopsy and the cremation. We never see the faces of her subjects, and yet, the photos feel intimate, graphic, and serene.
Certainty and uncertainty are the words that best describe the reasons behind her work. “The only complete certainty in life is that one day we will die. It is the most certain thing in the world, and the biggest uncertainty we experience of the world, because nobody can say what will happen afterwards. Maybe that is why we find it so difficult to speak about death. And maybe that’s why it is hidden away, under linens, in inaccessible dedicated rooms, in cold corridors beneath hospitals. What would happen if we saw with our own eyes? If we got a picture of what we already know? The body is perishable, it can be torn apart, it becomes stiff and cold, it rots, and in the end it is only the shell we inhabit while we are alive,” Ertmann states, as the dichotomy of life and death have always been present in her mind.
When she captures a hand, a skull or a swath of white hair, she makes us confront the fear of dying, and reconciles us with the fact that we are all going to perish. To see death right in the eyes grants us the ability to value life.
In order to explore the aftermath of life, she asked to have access to the morgue, the autopsy table, the crematorium, and the chapel of the Pathological Institute of Aarhus University Hospital. During her sessions, she faced the process behind an autopsy and she witnessed the transformation of the body in its final moments. To complete her visual story, Ertmann includes a narrative of her experience.
His chest isn’t moving. The cells in his body have carried out the last of their work, the mechanisms have come to a halt and he is not going to get any older. In the 6-hour-room lies a man under a blanket. Before six hours have passed from the moment of his death a doctor will examine him, looking for signs of clinical death. Irreversible interruption of the breath and the heart works, and death marks and stiffness. The red cord has never been used in the chapel in Aarhus, but it’s there anyway, so that the person under the cloth can call for help, should they awake.
Here, women and men, girls and boys lay on ice, because they were careless, because they were unlucky, or because their time had come. This woman was found dead in her home. She has just been through an autopsy, which confirmed that she didn’t die victim of a crime. Soon, her body will be dressed and laid out in the coffin.
Muscular stiffening begins between four and twelve hours after death. It starts in the neck and makes movement of the limbs impossible. When it reaches the scalp, it can make the dead body’s hair rise. Like goose bumps on the living.
In the chapel of the Pathological Institute of Aarhus University Hospital, the dead are welcomed. Here they are dressed in clothes, their hair is combed and they are laid in the coffin, before we can say our last goodbye to those we have lost.
In the crematory, the coffins are burned. Flowers are removed, but drawings, cards and pictures are included in the big oven and are burned at 850 degrees Fahrenheit. It takes about an hour and a half to transform into ashes. If there are bone fragments, they are crushed, and the ashes put in a urn. Afterwards, the urn is laid in the ground, or maybe the ashes are scattered over the sea.
There are blue and reddish blemishes on the body. These are death’s bruises, telltale signs that the cells have stopped their work and the blood has rushed to the lowest spots in the body. A label around the toes reports the essential information about the deceased. If the label is orange, they’ve been taken in by Falck. If it’s green, they come from one of the hospital’s departments. It tells when death occurred, if an autopsy needs to be conducted, and the name and social security number.
During an autopsy the body is opened from the pubic bone up to the throat. All the organs in the breast and the abdominal cavity are removed and examined after the cut is made. The brain is removed from the skull and examined.
When the autopsy is done, the table and the floor are hosed clean with water and soap.
A man has his hair combed. He lies in a coffin and is dressed in a shirt and blazer. He won’t be viewed by his relatives, he just has to look good until the lid of the coffin is screwed tight with the small screws.
In the chapel, family members and friends say goodbye to the man in the coffin.
SourceCathrine Ertmann Nordjylland