Monday, May 05, 2008

Life before Death exhibition

Recently I taught a ten week Personal Development Through Philosophy course, and, though we talked about many interesting things - wisdom, happiness, meaning, love, work - the topic that grabbed students attention most this time was death. I don't think that this was because the group was particularly negative or morbid - it wasn't - but because it's the one aspect of the human condition that is both inescapable and most frequently denied. Many live as if they believe they are guaranteed their full three-score and ten years - as if important things can wait.The truth is that even if we do not suffer an early death, time is our most important and non-renewable commodity. Whilst philosophers may associate a focus on death and time with existentialist philosophers like Martin Heidegger, other rather more populist thinkers have echoed similar sentiments. I particularly appreciate John Lennon's
"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." (from the song Beautiful Boy)

It's one thing to nod sagely at the above thoughts, another to let it affect one's life. If you are anywhere near Euston Station in the next couple of weeks, I recommend half an hour spent at the Life Before Death exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road.

The collection describes itself in this way

24 sets of photographs taken before and after death

Nothing teaches us more about life than death itself. Journalist Beate Lakotta and photographer Walter Schels asked 24 terminally ill people if they could accompany them during their last weeks and days. From these vigils came a series of insightful descriptions and photographic portraits taken before and after death.

Far from being gloomy, these intimate concerns of the dying reveal the preciousness and transience of life, and make us question what we often take for granted

You can view a slideshow of photos before and after death here.

The exhibition has received many positive reviews - see for example this five-star review. Even The Sun did a positive feature on it.

Personally, I found the exhibition moving and a further confirmation of the importance of facing the possibility of premature death head on.
One 68-year-old could scarcely believe the way death was cheating her out of her retirement. She had been working hard all her life to finally enjoy herself. "Can't death wait?" she pleaded. It could not - eight days later, she was dead.

Another of the condemned, aged 47, mused "It's absurd really. It's only now that I have cancer that for the first time, ever, I really want to live." Existential therapist Irvin Yalom has longobserved how impending death trivialises the trivial. Wouldn't it be good if we could do this without the sentence of imminent death hanging over us?

The exhibition is free and continues until 18th May.

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