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Tag Archives: Death

A friend, an 89 year old woman, lost a son to cancer this week. I never met the man, but her grief is intense. She is a very private woman, and has refused visitors during this time, even though she is too old and frail to travel to be with her family gathering around the body.

Pond and Rain, 2005

When she told of us of his rapid decline and likely death, two weeks ago, my wife and I sat in stunned silence. This friend is one of the most composed and elegant people I have ever met, but she has seen death and madness before: her husband’s family fled the holocaust in Germany, her husband died of a heart attack at 48, and her mother was murdered in her bed, a crime that remains unsolved decades later. And now the death of her son. Words fail.

View from my kitchen window, 2008

A few months ago, this friend led a Sunday morning service at the small church we sporadically attend, and she read a poem, attributed to Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

It is a lie
any talk of god
that does not

Thinking about that poem, I started looking at my photographs of the Alaskan Landscape in a different way.

Summit Lake

For some years, I have been consciously thinking about numinous landscapes, places where spirits exist, a term first suggested to me by Barry Lopez. In the landscape, I have sometimes felt myself to be in the presence of something that opens up and reveals itself to me, sharing secrets. I have tried to respond to this by saying thanks to the place, to what spirit I do not know, as I put my camera away.

Snow, Murphy Dome

Now, looking at my photographs, some of them seem to contain some ineffable presence that comforts. Perhaps it is no more profound than the headset offered by the dentist doing a root canal—a way of looking away, putting your mind in another place during a painful moment—but I’d like to think it’s something more. More than eye candy—perhaps as strong as morphine—something to soothe the pain.

Tasinia River, 2005

Robert Adams speaks of the purpose of art as “consolation”—a term very much associated with comforting those in times of death.


Tanana River, 1994

Of course, visual images have been part of religious worship for a long time. In my home, I have a Greek Ikon I found at an estate sale a few years ago—a picture of the Madonna and child—something that doesn’t hold much meaning for me. (Every time I look at it, I think of the Dylan line “my grandma prays to pictures that are pasted on a board”.) So perhaps the idea that some photographs can invoke thoughts of the divine is not so absurd.

In the Jewish tradition, a family sits in mourning for a week after a death, and receives visitors. These visitors are advised to be silent, to bring small gifts of food. Since our friend is refusing visitors, I’m trying to honor the tradition by sending her photographs by e-mail, one a day, each morning. I call it “sitting digital Shiva”. I can only hope it is a comfort.

Four months ago, my father passed away, at age 83.  He lived a long healthy life until 79, but the last 4 years were a slow slide into the grave, no fun to watch, and even less fun to live through.  The last year was particularly hard, as his mind deteriorated: first his sense of time gave out (he had more problems with clocks than anyone I ever knew—we even had an atomic clock that supposedly got time from a satellite somewhere that would gain and lose hours a day…), followed by misconceptions of reality that bordered on hallucinations.

My Father's Tractor, 1987

My Father’s Tractor, 1987

My father wanted to be a farmer, a man who grows food for other people.  I made the image of my father’s tractor  in 1987, when my father was farming only a small part of his farm, mostly to grow a large unruly garden, and a small field of tomatoes.  I spent many hours on that tractor when I was living at home in the 1970s, plowing, raking hay, hauling tomatoes, helping my father do his work.

I gave a print of the image my father as a gift several years ago.  At that time, he was living off the farm, in a suburban house, and we hung the picture in a bedroom that functioned as his “office”.  We never talked about it—I just hung it up for him, he never said thanks.  When he moved from that house to a one bedroom apartment for seniors, the print went with him, hung by the door, the first image visitors would encounter.  After he collapsed from blood loss and moved to an assisted care facility, that print was in his room when he died.

If truth be told, my father was not a successful farmer, something in large part not his fault, as he was the son of a farmer who came of age during the great depression, and had no land or other assets to pass on to my father.  The farm my father did manage to buy, the one I grew up on, was on a north facing slope in the southern Lancaster county river hills—steep, rocky, and under laid with shale, not the flat, limestone rich farms of the northern and eastern end of the county—a very small farm sold to him in 1963 by another farmer who moved up to a bigger and better farm.

In 1997, my dad sold the farm, and moved to the northeast corner of Lancaster County, close to two of my sisters.  He and my mother started attending a new church, with a new graveyard, and  he and my mother told us they had picked out grave plots there.

My last visit with my father was in July.  At that time, he was very confused about why he was living where he was, and was convinced that the home had a chute that they put people in when they died, and buried them in the back lot.  One day, I took him for lunch at a nearby diner (he always ordered a big meal and ate slowly so he didn’t have to go back to the home), and then we took a drive into the farmlands to see the corn—12 feet high in places—amazing corn.  I drove to the church he had been attending, and pointed to the area where I thought the new graveyard was, a grassy strip next to the church parking lot, and told him that he had paid for a plot there, and when he died, he would be buried there.  He seemed confused about where he was, but he didn’t say anything, and the trip seemed to end his discussion about being buried in back of the home.

After my father’s funeral, I followed the hearse from the funeral home to the grave, and discovered at least one reason why my father was confused by that last trip—the graveyard was actually located some distance from the church, in the middle of fields, along a low ridge.  From the graveside, one could see farms, stretching out for miles in all directions.   The pile of dirt piled next to his grave was topped with chunks of limestone, scraped from the bottom of the grave.  My father had managed to find, in death, a place he had never found in life.

The death of my father was not unexpected, but is still sobering.  He worked hard all his life, but his work is done.  He has entered into rest.   My own work is not yet done.