This sombre series of portraits taken of people before and after they had died is a challenging and poignant study. The work by German photographer Walter Schels and his partner Beate Lakotta, who recorded interviews with the subjects in their final days, reveals much about dying - and living. Life Before Death is at the Wellcome Collection from April 9-May 18

Edelgard Clavey, 67
First portrait:
December 5 2003
Edelgard was divorced in the early eighties, and lived on her own from then on; she had no children. From her early teens she was an active member of the Protestant church. She contracted cancer about a year before she died, and towards the end she was bed-bound. Once she was very ill she felt she was a burden to society and really wanted to die


Second portrait:
January 4 2004
"Death is a test of one’s maturity. Everyone has got to get through it on their own. I want very much to die. I want to become part of that vast extraordinary light. But dying is hard work. Death is in control of the process, I cannot influence its course. All I can do is wait. I was given my life, I had to live it, and now I am giving it back"


Maria Hai-Anh Tuyet Cao, 52
First portrait:
December 5 2003
"Death is nothing,” says Maria. “I embrace death. It is not eternal. Afterwards, when we meet God, we become beautiful. We are only called back to earth if we are still attached to another human being in the final seconds”


Second portrait:
February 15 2004
Maria’s thoughts on death are permeated with her belief in the teachings of her spiritual guru, Supreme Mistress Ching Hai; she believes she has already visited the afterlife in meditation. What Maria hopes is that she can achieve a sense of total detachment at the moment of death: she spends most of her time in the days leading up to her death preparing mentally for this


Elly Genthe, 83
First portrait:
December 31 2002
Elly Genthe was a tough, resilient woman who had always managed on her own. She often said that if she couldn’t take care of herself, she’d rather be dead. When I met her for the first time, she was facing death and seemed undaunted: she was full of praise for the hospice staff and the quality of her care. But, when I visited again a few days later, she seemed to sense her strength was ebbing away.


Second portrait:
January 11 2003
Sometimes during those last weeks she would sleep all day: at other times, she saw little men crawling out of the flower pots who she believed had come to kill her. “Get me out of here”, she whispered as soon as anyone held her hand. “My heart will stop beating if I stay here. This is an emergency! I don’t want to die!”



Beate Taube, 44
First portrait:
January 16 2004
Beate had been receiving treatment for breast cancer for four years, but by the time we met she had had her final course of chemotherapy, and knew she was going to die. She had even been to see the grave where she was to be buried


Second portrait:
March 10 2004
Beate felt that leaving her husband and children behind would be too difficult and painful if they were with her. At the moment of her death she was entirely alone — her husband was in the kitchen making a cup of coffee. He told me later that he was disappointed that he couldn’t be with her, holding her hand, but he knew this is what she had always said, that dying alone would be easier for her


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…”


Heiner Schmitz, 52
First portrait:
November 19 2003
Heiner was a fast talker, highly articulate, quick-witted, but not without depth. He worked in advertising. When he saw the affected area on the MRI scan of his brain he had grasped the situation very quickly: he had realised he didn’t have much time left.


Second portrait:
December 14 2003
Heiner’s friends clearly didn’t want him to be sad and were trying to take his mind off things. They watched football with him just like they used to do: they brought in beers, cigarettes, had a bit of a party in the room. “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!”


Gerda Strech, 68
First portrait:
January 5 2003
Gerda couldn’t believe that cancer was cheating her of her hard-earned retirement. “My whole life was nothing but work, work, work,” she told me. She had worked on the assembly line in a soap factory, and had brought up her children single-handedly. “Does it really have to happen now? Can’t death wait?” she sobbed


Second portrait:
January 14 2003
On one visit Gerda said, “It won’t be long now”, and was panic-stricken. Her daughter tried to console her, saying: “Mummy, we’ll all be together again one day.” “That’s impossible,’ Gerda replied. “Either you’re eaten by worms or burned to ashes.” “But what about your soul?” her daughter pleaded. “Oh, don’t talk to me about souls”, said her mother in an accusing tone. “Where is God now?”


Roswitha Pacholleck, 47
First portrait:
December 31 2002
“It’s absurd really. It’s only now that I have cancer that, for the first time ever, I really want to live,” Roswitha told me on one of my visits, a few weeks after she had been admitted to the hospice. “They’re really good people here,” she said. “I enjoy every day that I’m still here. Before this my life wasn’t a happy one”


Second portrait:
March 6 2003
But she didn’t blame anyone. Not even herself. She had made peace with everyone, she said. She appreciated the respect and compassion she experienced in the hospice. “I know in my mind that I am going to die, but who knows? There may still be a miracle.” She vowed that if she were to survive she would work in the hospice as a volunteer


Peter Kelling, 64
First portrait:
November 29 2003
Peter Kelling had never been seriously ill in his life. He was a civil servant working for the health and safety executive, and didn’t allow himself any vices. And yet one day he was diagnosed with bowel cancer. By the time I met him, the cancer had spread to his lungs, his liver and his brain. “I’m only 64,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t be wasting away like this”


Second portrait:
December 22 2003
At night he was restless, he told me, and kept turning things over in his mind. He cried a lot. But he didn’t talk about what was troubling him. In fact he hardly talked at all and his silence felt like a reproach to those around him. But there was one thing that Peter Kelling followed to the very last and that was the fortunes of the local football team. Until the day he died, every game was recorded on the chart on the door of his room


Barbara Gröne, 51
First portrait:
November 11 2003
All her life, Barbara had been plagued by the idea that she has no right to be alive. She had been an unwanted baby: soon after her birth, her mother had put her into a home. But she had a strong survival instinct, and became very focused, she said, very disciplined in the way she lived. After much hard work, it seemed that life was at last delivering her a better hand


Second portrait:
November 22 2003
But then the cancer struck: an ovarian tumour, which had already spread to her back and pelvis. Nothing could be done. Abruptly her old fears returned: the familiar sense of worthlessness and sadness. At the end of her life, Barbara told me that she was overwhelmed by these feelings. “All my efforts were in vain”, she said. “It is as though I am being rejected by life itself"


Klara Behrens, 83
First portrait:
February 6 2004
Klara Behrens knows she hasn’t got much longer to live. “Sometimes, I do still hope that I’ll get better,” she says. “But then when I’m feeling really nauseous, I don’t want to carry on living. And I’d only just bought myself a new fridge-freezer! If I’d only known!”


Second portrait:
March 3 2004
"I wonder if it’s possible to have a second chance at life? I don’t think so. I’m not afraid of death — I’ll just be one of the million, billion grains of sand in the desert…”


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Posted by Fiona Monday, February 18, 2013

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