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Commentary: Taking obituary photos and the difference between death and dying

People don’t like to talk about death, and that shows when families grapple with how to take Ah Ma’s obituary pictures, Terence Heng.

Commentary: Taking obituary photos and the difference between death and dying

Photograph on a tombstone in Bukit Brown Cemetery (Photo: Terence Heng)

LIVERPOOL: Before I became a sociologist, I was a photographer working the wedding and family circuit in Singapore. With the latter, I would often be asked to visit people’s homes to photograph extended families, especially when someone had given birth.

Parents, grandparents, and sometimes great-grandparents would gather dutifully for an hour to pose with the newborn. Once the “official” photos were done, I would inevitably be asked to do one of two things - throw in a few “passport photo” style images, or take a sneaky obituary photograph for the oldest family member present.

Now obviously no one actually tells the subject they are preparing a picture for their death. It was always “Ah Ma! Look here! Smile!” or something like that.

Although I always suspected Ah Ma knew. She always knows.


If you do not like talking about death, you’re not alone. The aversion towards engaging with death and dying is a well-studied and well-documented phenomenon.

READ: We treat the business of death like it’s dirty work, a commentary

Bukit Brown Cemetery. (Photo: AFP) File photo: A man walks past a graveyard at Bukit Brown, one of Singapore's oldest cemeteries. (AFP/Roslan Rahman)

One may think it is a particularly Asian thing, but that’s not true either – scholars like Tony Walter and Glennys Howarth have been charting societal perceptions of death for many years.

Walter notes in his study The Sociology of Death how society’s engagement with death has changed alongside technological and economic advancements.

Where once death was dealt with largely by family members, those duties have largely gone to professionals. Where dying at home was once a common thing, this has been replaced by hospitals and hospices.

Sociologist Anthony Giddens calls this the sequestration of death – meaning that death is now hidden away from view, whether through the delegation of duties to others, or in the landscapes that we build. Remember how everyone got so huffy when proposals to build hospices in neighbourhoods were floated?

Some have argued that this is a sign of “death denial” – a way of life where society actively refuses to acknowledge that death is an inevitable fate, or even a thing at all.

READ: For the dying, home hospice care offers a ray of hope, a commentary

File photo of a hospital. (Photo: Unsplash/Daan Stevens)

Taken to its extreme, death denial can come in the form of cryogenic freezing – a phenomenon where individuals pay to have their bodies (or for cheaper, just their heads) frozen and stored after death in hopes that future technology can help them live forever.

It sounds like the stuff of dreams (or nightmares), but completely understandable when you think about what death means to an individual.

Death is not just physical but social – to die is to be removed from others, to be sequestered in a different kind of way.

This is why many religions emphasised a sense of social belonging post-death, such as how we would be reunited, both with the divine as well our loved ones who have gone before.

It is also why much social research show that individuals consider dying surrounded by loved ones a “good” death as compared to doing so alone or among strangers.

READ: Contemplating the future of dying, a commentary

But that same body of research also shows that a good death entails preparation and autonomy. If given a choice in how, when and where we die, we would stand a greater chance of encountering death more peacefully or stoically.


This brings us back to the problem of talking about death in Singapore.

Most Singaporeans have no issues with talking about the state of death. We surround ourselves with ritualistic engagements with death such as Facebook dedications, tomb cleaning, memorial services, and online obituaries.

So much effort to remember the dead – Hungry Ghost Festival 2017 (Photo: Terence Heng)

READ: Dealing with the difficult issue of organ donation when a loved one passes on, a commentary

But when it comes to talking about the process of dying, that’s when the “ick” factor comes in.

Ever the pragmatic bunch that we are, we end up discussing logistics, wills, coffin, flower arrangements.

Even then, these discussions on dying, which touch on the scary, unknown transition between living and not living, frightens us the most.

Despite my religious faith, the potential prospect of nothingness sends me running to get distracted by work, television or whatever the equivalent of Pokemon Go is now.

Death appears to be fine (especially if it’s about someone else), it’s the getting there that’s the problem.

While some may point to superstition (a term which I find dismissive of belief systems) or fear of death that prevents us from having constructive conversations about death, the reality is this: It is the fear of dying and dying poorly, that perhaps forces so many of us to procrastinate until it is too late.

Why else then as a nation do we struggle to talk about end-of-life care and living wills?


We need to overcome our fear of dying, both culturally and policy-wise, by being sensitive to that fear, and to situate it as not necessarily something directly connected to dying (even if it is).

(Photo: Unsplash/Annie Spratt)

READ: Don't let caring for the dying become a burden on the living, a commentary

A greater menu of options for living well prior to death, both public and private, offered in a frank but sympathetic way through various channels of communication, is a good step forward.

In all my years doing sneaky obituary photographs, I met one family that showed no fear of talking about making preparations. They posed gamely for photographs, ensuring I got their best side.

Perhaps it was their faith, perhaps it was sheer bravado, but they certainly appeared to take delight in being prepared.

That preparedness is to me, a good way to live as well as one can for the next stage of being human.

Terence Heng is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool, UK, where he is also an associate at the Centre for Architecture and the Visual Arts.

Source: CNA/nr