First came shock. Deer in the headlights. Fish out of water. No comprehension whatsoever.
Next came skepticism. One of those look left, look right moments that end with a timid “are you talking to me?”
“Yes – I’m talking to you! Wanna come over here and lay down in this coffin?”
“It’s a photo booth and it’s free! Haven’t you always wanted to feel what it’s like from this side of the box?”
Shock instantly subsided, swallowed by a fit of laughter. Alacrity. Glee. A childlike jubilation saved for the most the most ridiculous of moments in life. Nothing is more absurd in our culture than being asked to willingly lay down in a casket and close your eyes – let alone get your photo taken there, in that vulnerable, forbidden place. I might as well have asked people to drop their britches mid step and show me their unmentionables.
Still, folks played along. From the oldest patron to the youngest. People were actually curious as to what it was like to lay down in a coffin plush with sheepskin and adorned with flowers. Over 100 people participated and every single one of them had an indelible grin on their face stepping timidly into that casket.
What surprised me most was what happened when folks settled in. From the top of my little ladder – camera in hand – I witnessed muscles relaxing, breath releasing, and each body melting into a state of deep comfort. People looked at home in that casket. There was this sense of peace and rootedness that came over each and every person who I photographed. It was stunning. It was universal. You’ll see what I mean in the photos below.
The children were especially magical to behold. They had no problem cuddling into a plain pine box. A few actually fell asleep there. They have yet to inherit our culture’s fear of death.
My childhood was a magical place full of ruffles, feathers, tulle and lace. I adored dressing up – parading shamelessly around the house in burlap. An imagined Indian princess with lipstick war paint. I relished my time alone in the mornings, before my parents woke – the hour when my imagination ran wild.
I recall one morning. I scamper into the kitchen to make my Nesquik, peruse the morning cartoons, and pull out my chest of dresses. First came the obligatory white Easter tights and matching socks with the turned down lace cuffs. I pick a snow-white taffeta gown with miles of tulle underskirt, the loose bodice gapping from my baby barrel chest. Clear plastic shoes with kitty heels. Pearl clip-ons. Ivory gloves. Aunt Cindy’s wedding veil. I powder my face. Lace my hands. Then I lay down on the coffee table to die.
I was somewhere between the age of picture books and PG movies. My experience with death was limited to sleeping princesses and witches spells hidden in the pages of those little golden books. To me, dying was a way somebody looked – a costume you put on.
When my mom found me lying there, pale and supine, she made the worst face I’ve ever seen. It was like she realized – for the first time – that our daughters and our sons can die. It turned me to ice – my guilt unbearable. What was so scary about death? I held onto that guilt for two decades. When I shared this memory with my mother last August, she didn’t recall it. Yet I held it in my bones for so long – informing my fears.
This is why I created a coffin photo booth. This is why we throw Death Faire. We’re not just interacting with coffins – we are normalizing the concept of our own mortality. We are reconciling with death – learning it’s face – seeing it as the cradle of life. We’re breaking down those walls that our culture has built in our hearts, separating ourselves from our own humanness. Through childlike wonder, we are relearning what it means to be human.
This is why we need to start these conversations and have these experiences – so that our daughters and our sons may not live in fear.