Photographer Describes the Beautiful Experience of Dressing and Photographing Deceased Grandfather
My grandfather died in the spring of 2014. It didn’t come as a surprise to anyone. During the last two years he didn’t respond a lot; he wasn’t present. I don’t know if he thought about dying, whether he was expecting it or afraid of it. I don’t think so. He was 87 years old.
My sister and I helped the mortician prepare him for his coffin. We dressed him into his best suit, combed his hair—it felt like a last favor for him. Maybe I was trying to compensate for the fact I didn’t visit him enough. My conscience isn’t clear when it comes to that.
My grandfather and I weren’t that close because he and my grandmother lived far away from the town where I grew up. It was only after his condition started to deteriorate that I made any effort to visit them more often and those visits were not easy; my grandfather had lost his hearing and my grandmother had lost her short-term memory. She would ask the same questions again and again and he would sit at the table and smile, not knowing what we were talking about. At least he seemed pleased that he still recognized me.
When I was a kid, I had my reservations about him. He seemed very strict so I kept a certain distance. He wasn’t mean or anything—he just didn’t want us to fool around and wreak havoc like children often do. Now I understand that that was just his way of trying to raise and teach us how to be proper humans.
Most people in Finland—where I am from—don’t know that you can dress the deceased. And if they did they probably wouldn’t do it. Death is still a taboo over here. You are not supposed to talk about it, let alone photograph it. I don’t know why this is. Maybe we don’t want to be reminded of our mortality.
Preparing my grandfather for his coffin was a beautiful experience. Time seemed to come to a halt. All my memories of him felt stronger, more concrete. I had photographed him on many occasions and he always had this amazing presence. This was our last shoot together—although, in some sense, he was no longer there. Merely a shell was left. I spent a few minutes taking photographs, then I closed the coffin. That was that. The last time I saw my grandfather.
Looking at the pictures now takes me back to the moment of seeing him in the coffin. In the pictures he seems to be at ease. And there still is that sense of presence. In some way I feel a lot closer to him now than I ever did before.
These photos are from the series To Bury a Father by Kimmo Metsäranta