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“Klaus Bo: How Death Rituals Reflect the Lives of the Living”, by Gina Williams

Since about 2010, Danish photographer Klaus Bo has photographed death rituals around the world in a photography-based anthropological quest to document and better understand why death is so taboo in places like Denmark and so public and ritualized in many other parts of the world, from Indonesia to Mexico.

Trigger warning: This interview contains images of people who have passed away.

“The project is intended to contribute to public debate, encourage conversations about death, and allow people to familiarize themselves with the topic in more depth,” Bo writes on the “Dead and Alive” website.

Philippines / © Klaus Bo

I contacted him several months ago to find out how his project was going given the pandemic.

Ironically, during a time where, as of February 26, 2022, nearly 6 million people globally have died from COVID-19, Bo’s long-term effort had to be put on hold for more than two years. Lockdowns, travel restrictions, mask requirements, and funding issues created too many obstacles to continue.

Bo is a self-taught professional freelance photographer committed to social and cultural stories. He has documented many issues over the years, including Iraqi refugees living in Syria, the Coptic garbage city in Egypt, Holi festival in India, aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, and refugees in Tunisia fleeing Libya, to name a few.

In 2002, he photographed a public Muslim funeral at a mosque in Copenhagen as part of a personal “con amore” (with love) project about the area of Copenhagen where he lives, which has gone through a major gentrification process. The experience made him think of how taboo death is in his own part of the world—and was personally to him at the time. Years later, on assignment in Greenland while photographing a cemetery in Upernavik, he concluded that his idea for a project on worldwide death rituals was visual enough to be realized through photography.

Simo I looking at his father, Lauri Makela, who died of mesothelioma at Gudenå Hospice in march 2017. Lauri had been ill for four years and spent some of the time preparing himself and his family for his death. When Lauri became weaker and needed daily care, he decided that he would like to spend his last time at the hospice. Here he could get the help and medicine he needed from a health professional 24/7. (© Klaus Bo)
At the funeral service of Lauri Makela. (© Klaus Bo)

Bo now has more than 150,000 images. He is pursuing a book project through crowdfunding and after two years of being in “COVID survival mode” is finally giving public talks and obtaining freelance work again. He recently returned from assignment in Lapland.

As pandemic restrictions lift and he recovers financially from employment difficulties, Bo plans to slowly return to “Dead and Alive,” his solo quest to document death rituals of the five main religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism) as well as other customs around the world rarely witnessed by outsiders.

Afun Botswe was a chieftain of a smaller village in the outskirts of Accra, Ghana. Mr. Botswe died at the age of 97, and to honour him, he was buried a coffin shaped as an eagle. Mourners are crying over his body as he is lying in state before the funeral. (© Klaus Bo)
Afun Botswe was a chieftain of a smaller village in the outskirts of Accra, Ghana. Mr. Botswe died at the age of 97, and to honour him, he was buried a coffin shaped as an eagle. Mourners are crying over his body as he is lying in state before the funeral. The tradition of these coffins has developed out of the figurative palanquins that was used by the kings of the Ga tribe when they were carried in public. The Ga tribe believe that death is not the end, and that life continues in the next world in the same way it did on earth. Ancestors are also thought to be much more powerful than the living and able to influence their relatives who are still alive. This is why families do everything they can to ensure that a dead person is sympathetic towards them as early as possible. The social status of the deceased depends primarily on the importance, success and usage of an exclusive coffin during a burial. (© Klaus Bo)

“Nobody has ever done a project about how these rituals actually reflect the lives of the living,” he told me for an interview I did with him for a piece about his work in Lensculture a few years ago.

In the past two years, he hasn’t been able to photograph anything related to death rituals given travel restrictions, face masks and lack of money, but has found the time to narrow his 150,000 images down to about 6,000 – with a goal of selecting 300 for a new website and book.

“I have also started working on how the Danes and people living in Denmark relate to death … this project, however, is only in the beginning at the moment,” he says.

From my newest project about how Danes deal with death. A Danish Buddhist is being cremated. It is a quite unusual image, since family, friends, priests etc are usually not allowed in the room with the ovens. But, for Buddhists it is important to observe the cremation if possible. However, during the cremation itself, the Lama and the family watch the oven from a small room next to the oven hall. (© Klaus Bo)

Bo agreed with me when I mentioned how ironic it is that a photographer on a mission to look death in the face and publicly share through a project that is not actually about death, but life and the living, had to pause while a pandemic caught fire around the world.

But like me, he also realized in this historic and sad moment in time, that a pause can be healthy.

If a Hindu dies in Varanasi, the soul can escape the cycle of rebirth and reincarnation. That makes Varanasi the religious capital of Hinduism, and people go there to die. Hindus believe that the body is either reborn or ultimately released from the wheel of suffering, achieving moksha, more or less the equivalent of the Buddhist Nirvana. (© Klaus Bo)
During Día de los Muertos in Pomuch, family and friends are remembering a young man from the village. His favorite food items are placed on the altar to make him feel at home and welcome. After the prayer, people are sharing the food. (© Klaus Bo)
Details of graves in a cemetery in the northern part of Campeche. (@ Klaus Bo)

“Like you, I seriously can’t wait to travel abroad again and continue my work on the project,” he says, adding that he survived the lean days of no freelance assignments by getting work actually assisting with COVID testing and tracing.

“I was also at peace with doing something meaningful during this difficult time, and actually it was a good process to mentally leave the project alone for awhile.”

Villagers in a small Tamang (a Buddhist group living in Nepal) village in the mountains of Nepal are praying during the first part of funeral rituals of Ramri Tamang. (© Klaus Bo)
A Tamang man at the age of 42 died overnight in a small village in the mountains of Nepal and has been prepared for the following rituals. Usually family and friends would have put the body in lotus position but death stiffness (is that the correct expression?) made it impossible. (© Klaus Bo)
Jerusalem. With over 150.000 graves, the hilltop burial ground, Har HaMenuchot (Mount of Those who are Resting), is by far the largest cemetery in Jerusalem. Burial plots are usually free for Israelis living in Jerusalem, but if you want to be buried in a specific plot – for instance next to your loved ones, the plots are selling for as much as 19.000 Sheqels (app. 5.400 USD).
Due to Judaism’s prohibition on disinterment, the cemetery is soon running out of space, which has led to the building of an underground cemetery with 24.000 new burial plots soon to open. (© Klaus Bo)

Thank you to Klaus Bo for graciously sharing several never-before-seen images from his collection for this column.

KLAUS BO

WEBSITE
DEAD AND ALIVE
INSTAGRAM

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gina Williams is a Portland, Oregon USA based journalist and poet. She covers photography and photographers internationally. Learn more about her and her work at GinaMarieWilliams.com and follow her on Instagram at @gina_williams_writes


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Comments (1):

  1. James Edmonds

    March 10, 2022 at 12:39

    Fascinating … especially from a ‘western’ perspective where death and death rituals are so taboo …. but check out the website for what are to my mind – far more revealing images.

    Reply

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