Internationally acclaimed photographer Sally Mann offers a five-part meditation on mortality.
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By Sally Mann
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
AT OUR HOLIDAY TABLE, HEADS BENT OVER the warmed Wedgwood, we said a
peculiar grace. Our father, who intoned it with an air of not quite
credible piety, attributed it to Oscar Wilde, but we were pretty
sure he composed it himself. It went like this:
O great Pelican of Eternity
that piercest thy breast for our food
we are thy fledglings who cannot know thy woe.
Bless this shadowy food of substance
whose last eater shall be worm
and feed us rather
on the visionary food
of dreams and grace.
This blessing, like the art all around us, reflected the singular
aesthetic of our dad, who jokingly claimed that there were three
avenues for artistic expression: Sex, Death, and Whimsy. All were
abundantly represented, but it was the middle one, and especially
the iconography associated with it, that most interested him all his
life. Cajoling my mother from cave to cathedral, lavishing his
distinctive longhand on reams of yellow paper, for decades he
researched how artists from all cultures have portrayed death.
As a physician, he'd seen his share of it. Among his effects I found
this picture that he took of a patient's backyard. On the back is
inscribed: "Graves of 4 children in one family who died in one year,
Timber Ridge, Va, I94?" Death was normal back then. People died at
home. Animals eaten by a family were usually killed on the property.
Their culture did not have the buffers that ours does protecting us
from death's realities. But, even for the time, he was an uncommonly
direct man. Not for him the euphemisms of death-it was a dead body,
not "remains," nobody "passed," there was no "eternal rest." People
died and that was it.
When the time came for him to do it, he was predictably unalarmed.
As a family we tried to follow suit, maintaining our irreverent
humor as he lay dying on the couch. But we were stunned into silence
when the actual moment of his death occurred, for it was a very
clear-forgive this-passing. He did, in fact, give up the ghost. We
saw it happen. Within a minute, his color changed to death's own
cyanic gray, the muscles of his face slackened, and he sagged into
His death laid me flat for almost a year. Now, many deaths later, I
am as perplexed by the experience as ever. Where did all of that
him-ness go? All that knowledge, the accretion of experiences from a
remarkable life, the suffering-his and others'-he had borne, the
beauty, life's own rapturous visions? It was, as the song says, as
if a library burned to the ground.
I am not susceptible to the supernatural, but, still, look at this
photograph of us with his ashes: What the hell is that spirit crow
alighting my brother's foot?? Crows held a special place in my
father's heart, and he insisted with impish anticipation that he
would be reincarnated as one. So, really, what's with the white
Our kids chalk lip my "death thing" to genetics, blaming it, along
with other things I do, on my father. They note the seeming
contradiction: I appear to be at once inured and vulnerable. For
example, I wept noisily over the Valentine's Day death of my
greyhound Eva, unable to look at her body lying frozen on a plank in
the barn. And yet I was still curious about what would finally
become of that head I had stroked, oh, ten thousand times, those
paws she so delicately crossed as she lay by my desk, rock-hard
nails emerging from the finest white hairs.
Was it ghoulish to want to know? Was it maudlin to want to keep her,
at least some part of her? Was it disrespcectful to watch her
intimate decomposition? I put these questions aside, picked tip the
phone, and called a friend who, bless his heart, didn't bat an eye
at what I was asking him to do.
* * *
When the land subsumes the dead, they become the rich body of earth,
the dark matter of creation. As I walk the fields of this farm,
beneath my feet shift the bones of incalculable bodies; death is the
sculptor of the ravishing landscape, the terrible mother, the damp
creator of life, by whom we are one day devoured.
She devoured Eva in much less time than I expected. I undid the
metal cage in which I had buried her and found what looked like a
stick drawing of a sleeping dog: her bones, punctuated by tufts of
indigestible hair and small cubes of adipocere, appeared like a
constellation in a rich black sky. After bagging the larger bones, I
reverently picked out the tiny pieces that remained-tail bones,
teeth, and claws, brushing the fragrant humus as an archaeologist
might. Back on the floor in the studio I reassembled her, head to
tail; bone by bone.
Excerpted from What Remains
by Sally Mann
Copyright © 2003 by Sally Mann.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Sally Mann has won numerous awards, including three National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a Guggenheim fellowship. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally and are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
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