Tiffany Jenkins: Why the fascination with death?

Celebrity photographer Rankin has snapped the most attractive and famous people in the world: Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Craig and George Clooney are just some of the beautiful people he has immortalised in their prime.
Rankins exhibition, which features a portrait of Sandra Barber, who has a brain tumour, is the latest to focus on terminal illness. Picture: RankinRankins exhibition, which features a portrait of Sandra Barber, who has a brain tumour, is the latest to focus on terminal illness. Picture: Rankin
Rankins exhibition, which features a portrait of Sandra Barber, who has a brain tumour, is the latest to focus on terminal illness. Picture: Rankin

But Rankin’s latest exhibition – Alive: In the Face of Death – which has just opened at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool is a significant departure from such primped and preening figures.

It is a show about death. It documents those who are “running out of time”. There are a few pictures of people who have survived against the odds, but on the whole the photographs are of those with a terminal illness. Men, women and children, with pancreatic cancer, a brain tumour, bone cancer and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, line the walls.

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It is moving. Rankin draws out the humanity and the life of each person. But I am struck that it’s not the first show about dying and death that I have seen in recent months, and that’s not because I have a morbid sensibility.

Earlier this year the Wellcome Collection in London held the exhibition Death: A Self-Portrait. It featured about 300 works – pictures, photographs and etchings – devoted to death and “our contradictory attitude” to it.

This followed a 2008 exhibition, Life Before Death, which comprised 24 sets of photographs of people with a terminal illness taken before and after their death, by the photographer Walter Schels and his partner Beate Lakotta. Life Before Death was very popular. When the Guardian ran the pictures online, it was one of its most visited pages.

The publicity for the Rankin exhibition states that death is the “ultimate taboo”, which the show aims to break. In a similar vein, last week was Dying Awareness week, which aimed to “promote public awareness of dying, death and bereavement” and to “break the taboo” around death. The organisers asked people to tweet what their final words would be. Stephen Fry said: “Goodbye, it’s been fun, sorry to leave the party early.” Alastair Campbell, one-time spin doctor, tweeted: “Glad I’ve gone before Fiona. Not sure I’d cope without her. Kids be happy but change the world. Ashes Turf Moor pls #FinalTweets”.

Focusing the mind on what is important about life is not a bad thing, but these were public tweets, which makes the reflection seem a bit trivial. Is Twitter the place for serious contemplation, where tweets are read alongside what people had for tea and their television viewing, in a split second, rather than in a thoughtful conversation with loved ones? It seems both flippant and mawkish.

The frequently repeated cliché is that death is little spoken of. But with the countless exhibitions, articles and broadcasts lamenting just how little we talk about death, is it really still the case that talking about death is off limits?

Death is certainly less present in our everyday lives than in the past, but in many respects this is down to positive developments. We fail to appreciate now how in the 20th century improvements in public health removed the domination of death over people’s everyday lives. No longer do we get sick so quickly and die so easily. That is one important reason why death is less present – and a good thing, too.

Indeed, although in the end we all die, it is remarkable just how much longer people live and in a healthier state. And yet instead of appreciating this, there is a desire to pull death back into our everyday lives and into the public domain.

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When a public figure is dying, or dies, we hear about it in great detail. Next up, I expect, will be Nelson Mandela. When he was ill with a lung infection in March, the world’s media watched his every move and reported on any hospital report they could find. I heard more about the state of his bodily functions than I felt appropriate. There was something distasteful in what was a voyeuristic approach to death and decay. It was not respectful towards him, or his family.

Kate Granger, a terminally-ill doctor in Yorkshire, has announced that she plans to “live tweet” her death, using the hashtag #deathbedlive. She has 10,378 followers, to date. She comes across as a smart, lively and cheerful woman, but I wonder why we are so keen to hear about her illness and the act of dying, and whether this is a healthy development.

Rather than it being taboo, there are certain aspects of dying that we want to talk about – and rather too much for my liking. In fact, in the past 30 years there has a considerable increase of interest in death; in academia, in the media and in popular culture. The academic Tony Walter, author of The Revival of Death, has observed: “The announcements that death is taboo and that our society denies death, yet death is more and more talked of.” And that “all this sounds like a society obsessed with death, not one that denies it”.

What is striking is what we talk about when we talk about death, in public. It is the act, the physical act of dying and the process of deterioration that is the object of attention.

It is as if we are trying to find meaning in physical death, rather than in the face of death, which is an important distinction.

Instead of documenting dying, instead of watching the last minutes of life fade away, we need to answer the questions that death throws up: what is the point of life and what is a good life? These are existential questions, they concern the meaning of existence.

Finding answers together helps us address our grief and loss. But, today, talking about the meaning of life appears to be more taboo than watching the dying pass away.

Tweeting as we expire will not answer what are profound questions. Nor will relentlessly photographing those who are terminally ill.

Stop staring death in the face. We need to talk about life.

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