Wrenching and beautiful before-and-after-death photos

German photographers Walter Schels and Beate Lakotta have a show of their extraordinary before-and-after-death photos opening on April 9 at the Wellcome Trust in London. The photos are marvellous and wrenching, the difference between flesh animated and the empty vessel gigantic and unmistakable, even when the before-death shot is of someone terribly ill. Life's marvellous and inexplicable.

Rita Schoffler, 62
First portrait: February 17 2004
Rita and her husband had divorced 17 years before she became terminally ill with cancer. But when she was given her death sentence, she realised what she wanted to do: she wanted to speak to him again. It had been so long, and it had been such an acrimonious divorce: she had denied him access to their child, and the wounds ran deep.

Second portrait: May 10 2004
When she called him and told him she was dying, he said he’d come straight over. It had been nearly 20 years since they’d exchanged a word, but he said he’d be there. “I shouldn’t have waited nearly so long to forgive and forget. I’m still fond of him despite everything.” For weeks, all she’d wanted to do was die. But, she said, “now I’d love to be able to participate in life one last time…”



  1. Those are amazing juxtapositions. And they, plus the text that goes with each, say a lot about our feelings about life (and interestingly, less so about the concept of death).

  2. seeing someone die is so unbelievably moving and unforgettable. there is a moment when the spark goes out, the twinkle is finally gone, a different kind of stillness arrives. these pictures bring back sad memories. amazing and profound.

  3. Wow indeed…….anyone else struck by the words of the dying about “wanting to have one more chance” or ” and now I can really, really live” and juxtaposing those with the fact of here we sit, typing our only life away with meaningless comments on boingboing?

  4. “And I’d only just bought myself a new fridge-freezer! If I’d only known!”

    Reminds you of what is really important in life, eh?
    (hint: nooo, it’s not the fridge-freezer, although it’s certainly nice to have one. I guess.)

  5. “Well, I’m still here. But I don’t know for how long. That’s as much certainty as anyone can give me. But I’ve got some good news: I no longer have any fear of death. But… I am in a pretty lonely place. No-one will have sex with me. I’m so close to the end and all I want is to get laid for the last time. I have pornographic movies in my apartment, and lubricants, and amyl nitrite…”

  6. Unicorn chaser, indeed!
    (Just not a pre- and post-death unicorn.)

    I guess I can see how some people find this…beautiful, I guess. But all I can see is reading these peoples’ quotes, the horrible sadness and loss. Sure, one woman found Hospice wonderful, another reconnected with her ex-husband…but so many of the others were keenly aware of the loss of life, beauty, chance, and hope. As I know I would be. The woman who worked all her life and just now able to enjoy retirement–stolen from her.

    Granted, it’s a poignant lesson to enjoy life while you can!!!

  7. @#11: There should be a service of clean, compassionate people who are willing to shag terminally ill people who just want a good boning before death.

    I remember actually thinking that if I knew a “Chloe” as depicted in that movie, then I would probably nail her. Same thoughts I had when Helena Bonham Carter did “The Theory of Flight”.

  8. I think she looks as if she’s asleep, no more or less beautiful than she was when awake. I don’t know if I ever want to see pictures of my friends or family like this. The thought is too sad.

  9. Man that great for her. Sometimes it’s very hard to do, but when you forgive and forget its an awesome feeling.

  10. Elysianartist @ #7:

    Zen master Yunmen said, “When sitting, just sit. When walking, just walk.”

    Updated for today, when posting a comment to BoingBoing, just post the comment to BoingBoing.

    Whatever one is doing, do it with full attention. By that gauge, posting a comment to BoingBoing is no more (or less) inherently worthy than washing dishes, or weeding a garden, or having a discussion in some other medium.

    I hope that if I’m ever in hospice, the people who come to visit me will “just sit” and be with me, instead of trying (pointlessly) to cheer me up.

    “Some of them even say ‘get well soon’ as they’re leaving; ‘hope you’re soon back on track, mate!’” says Heiner, wryly. “But no one asks me how I feel. Don’t they get it? I’m going to die!”

  11. “Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked no lightning they
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.

    Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

    And you, my father, there on the sad height,
    Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light. ”

  12. We really should get back to the Roman custom of making death masks and parading the images of our friends and families through the streets on festival days.

  13. “Wrenching” is a good word for it. The movement over that one border, captured on film and in writing, is very powerful. This was also a dignified way of presenting these people in their final hours.

  14. It’s interesting to see a dead friend or relative. I never understand why some people make such a fuss over the body and “want to say goodbye.” It’s clear, even to an atheist as myself, that the person you know is gone. You might as well say goodbye to their overcoat.

    People are what they say, do, and how they say and do it. It’s the way the move. It’s their functioning brain. The rest is just a puppet.

  15. Only Death is Real

    …this death metal slogan makes sense given these pictures. All that we’ve done, worried, lied, cheated, succeeded, thrived, loved, hated, defecated, eaten, spent, or made is gone in an instant.

    The cold eternity of the universe invades, as beautiful as life. We are (and have always been) nothing.

  16. Monumentally depressing. No one seemed particularly eager to die “when their time had come.” Hopefully they’ll cure death soon.

  17. An accurate description, Mr. Doctorow, thank you for sharing this.
    Takuan, i like your selection of poetry. One of the things i’d like to do before going “into that good night” is see Geraint Wyn Davies’ rendition of it, even a recording would suffice.

  18. Geraint Wyn Davies? I shall have to look for that.
    Some have looked askance at me in the past for the Dylan Thomas on the final occasion, hinting trite.
    I think it famous for a reason: it is right and good.

    I wept after perhaps the fourth.

  19. When I first saw my grandfather lying in the casket I didn’t recognize him. For one brief shining moment I thought it was all a mistake & that it was just someone else that had died.

  20. My grandfather was not a big man, standing maybe 5′ 5″ tall, but he had so much energy about him that he seemed to fill the room. After he died, he looked so very small.

  21. That was incredibly moving. I found myself getting a bit choked up as I read the words and saw the pictures.

  22. for you then;

    “And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another.”

  23. Each one had really sad story…make me want to live more than ever. It feels so painful and so ironic that we only value life when we’re close to death.

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