Photographers look for ‘the poetry of death and dying in America’

Social gathering and sharing a meal during Russian Easter honoring the dead, Spring Valley, New Jersey, 1997

Between 1996 and 1998, Bastienne Schmidt and her husband, Philippe Cheng, traveled throughout the United States photographing the services and ceremonies Americans use for the dead, hoping to “show some of the poetry of death and dying in America.”

Their images span from Las Vegas to Vicksburg, Mississippi, from New Orleans to New Jersey, and places in between. The images often capture a deep sense of place — a reminder that mourning and memory are not just in the mind, but rooted in communities and geographic space.

"We live in this time where we’re missing a sense of place," they say. "We’re feeling displaced, and that’s true for the physical place but also in a spiritual sense. As religion is not so important anymore in our lives, we have to reinvent our own way of mourning and grieving, our own rituals. And rituals are very important in this process of grieving."

Even though they often knew no one at these events, the two were able to establish trust through their approach. They chose not to shoot wide-angle from far away, but to get in close and engage with the people themselves. According to Schmidt, “Photography is also a tool to bear witness,” and in their travels they found themselves able to tell stories and share images of people that might have otherwise gone unseen.

These photos, originally published by PRI's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, are a collaboration with FlakPhoto, an independent photo/arts collaborative that promotes the discovery of photographic image-makers from around the world.

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