The problem with death, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is that people don’t take enough photographs of it. Which is why I have been looking at the Selfies at Funerals tumblr every day this week, transfixed by teenagers posing in front of their own phones, documenting their deep sadness (deep hotness) at a death in the family. These mini mourners face the camera, their faces sombre, their clothes surprisingly revealing for a day of death. Meanwhile, their captions reveal that Grandpa Bob, in a coffin somewhere in the background, has shuffled off this mortal coil. Beneath the caption they write a series of #hashtags, designed to attract the maximum number of new followers at this sensitive time in their lives.
The thing is – it’s definitely not the worst way you can document a funeral. That league table has already been topped by a family I know. The daughter went to a boarding school in my hometown, and killed herself a few years after leaving. Her dad said he was too busy to come to her funeral. A coping mechanism, you might say. Well, perhaps. But he had been too busy to come to most of her life, too – he was an international businessman who travelled a lot. Anyway, he was otherwise occupied, in Thailand, when they sent his girl into the ground in Europe, so he sent his assistant across the world with a camcorder to video the ceremony, so he could watch it later. Compared to him, my benchmark of funereal cuntitude, you can take all the selfies you want and you’re pretty much golden in my book.
The thing about these selfies is that they make death look so gloriously free. "Dead men are heavier than broken hearts," wrote Raymond Chandler. But the deaths in the background of these photographs come across as so weightless, and the mourners only astronauts, floating in the gravity-free zone of a new dress and a bathroom mirror, chained only to the potential for 37 likes in the space of the next 20 minutes. All the dopamine hits you could ever need, as your neurotransmitters go off, saying yes, you are noticed, yes, you are the alive one, yes, somebody is going to pay attention to you, on the one day this year when you expressly have to pay attention to somebody else, somebody who won’t even thank you for it now. It makes you think you might just be able to glide through life with a series of hashtags where a heart should be.
There really should be more pictures of death, though. Nobody photographs the end. Mantelpieces are full of framed pictures of newborn babies, but nobody frames a picture of the old man dying in the next ward, to remind you what happens next. I remember being completely stunned by the sight of my grandmother a few days before she died, having not seen her for a month or two before then. When I walked into the room in the nursing home she was still alive, but suddenly so thin, I think dehydrated, her wrists had become merely hinges. Her limbs flapped. She had visibly shrunk. I didn’t know that death looked like that on the living. It could have been useful to know more about this great secret before I arrived to say goodbye.
But then, death is supposed to be hard. Funerals are supposed to be hard. And if you’re used to having your phone in your hand at all times, you need those dopamine hits more than ever – you are basically a drug addict, taking drugs at a funeral. In a suit that has never quite fitted you, and a pallor that has never quite suited you. The jacket hangs off you like a book hung at the binders, and you notice your breath on the in, and you notice your breath on the out, and you try to be a grown-up, which can be hard, because you are only 12. It can be hard, because you are only 56. All trying to be quiet and sad together, waiting for something to break the awful silence. You don’t like this big space of uncharted feelings that you could fall into. It feels too wide and empty and weird – like pissing into a well.
And Raymond Chandler also wrote – I’ve been reading The Big Sleep this week – “What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on the top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that, oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell.”
We do still care where they fell, though, and where we lay them after the fall, and throw the dirt over them. This summer, I took photos of my daughter standing next to my grandmother’s grave. A little girl who didn’t even understand that she was in a graveyard, running around, probably desecrating stuff with all of her energy and rush. They never met, but I was so desperate to see the two of them together. So I made a toddler stand beside the headstone, her face beside her great-grandmother’s name, so I could get a picture of the two of them together. It was the closest I could get.
Follow Sophie on Twitter: @heawood