Some people are destined to stand vigil at places of death.
Russ Kick is a writer who obtained and published photographs of the flag-draped coffins of American soldiers killed in Iraq. Although a ban on such photos had been in place since 1991, Kick felt the photos were an important recognition of the cost of war and that Americans should be allowed to see them. Shortly after taking office, President Obama lifted the ban on such photos at the discretion of their next of kin.
The photographer Kevin Bauman grew up in Detroit and now lives in Colorado. Whenever he returned to his home town, he was overwhelmed by its decline, and began photographing abandoned homes and churches. On his website, Bauman says it began as a
“creative outlet, and as a way of satisfying my curiosity with the state of my home town. I had always found it to be amazing, depressing, and perplexing that a once great city could find itself in such great distress, all the while surrounded by such affluence.
Bauman’s photographs document the stark details of decline in simple, beautiful ways. His series of church photos depicts tiny, storefront ministries with once ambitious names like Soul for Christ Deliverance Center and Starlight Temple of Truth. In these boarded up buildings, the faithful once gathered to pray and sing and stir up some Holy Ghost.
There is a woman in my church who insists that she be the first one called whenever a parishioner dies. Upon receiving the call, she heads down to the church and tolls the bell for the number of years her brother or sister in Christ lived on earth.
On Ash Wednesday, many of us will have ash smeared on our foreheads and we will hear the words, “You were made from dust, and to dust you will return.” Why do we mark our mortality in this way? Why look ahead to our deaths? Why remember the dead who came before? Why take pictures of boarded up buildings and coffins draped in flags?
Maybe its our way of standing vigil for all that is beloved and lost in the world. Death happens. It is part of life. Maybe we are saying, “Pay attention! Someone or something we loved is gone. ” Or maybe we are saying, “Look! We are alive! Come and tell stories and share pictures, cry and eat and sing together and listen to the bells toll.”
We are here to be witnesses to the kind of life that endures even in the midst of death.