How do we cope with the death of others? How will we cope with our own?
Two German artists thought long and hard about these questions and the result is a moving, thought-provoking exhibit titled "Life Before Death" on display at London's Wellcome Trust.
The Wellcome Trust is the largest independent charity in the United Kingdom and funds research to improve human and animal health.
Inspired by traditional death masks, Hamburg-based journalist Beate Lakotta and photographer Walter Schels set out to examine why people are fascinated with these final impressions. For centuries, people have studied the death masks of King Tutankhamen; William Shakespeare; Mary, queen of Scots; Napoleon Bonaparte; President Lincoln; and others. Captured immediately after death, these impressions of the great and the good capture something very personal and intimate.
"Newborns are wrinkled like very old people's faces, with an expression of suffering," Schels told ABC News. "On the other hand, we know from the tradition of death masks, that the dead often show a peaceful and relaxed expression. I wanted to explore this contrast."
Lakotta, 42, has lived with Schels, 72, for 12 years. They are confident that Walter will most probably die first.
"How would the one left behind manage?" Lakotta told ABC News, adding that they embarked on the project to overcome their fears of death. "We had always been frightened that one of us would be left alone. We wanted to prepare ourselves for this moment by doing this work."
They spent a year in German hospices visiting the terminally ill. Twenty-four people were asked whether their last days could be shared and documented; the resulting 48 portraits can be described as intimate, frightening, hopeful.
The men and women, many in the 40s and 50s, are aware they only have weeks, maybe days left to make peace with themselves and their loved ones. Some are angry, others prepared for what they hope will be an uninterrupted and painless sleep. Some hold onto a strong faith, others disregard the concept of an afterlife as a false comfort. Lakotta's text bravely attempts to capture their final thoughts. Schels' haunting and beautiful portraits at times are shocking.
Scottish painter Jen McIntosh, visiting the exhibit, told ABC News that the "collection is a poignant and salient study of the space between life and death. To me this was both a sad show and one that uplifted the soul."
What's more, "it makes you want to feel the sand between your toes and the rain on your face," she said
Another visitor afterward wrote in the guest book that she was "Heading to Tahiti."
Michael Fitzgerald, 11, told ABC News after his study of the portraits, that he would definitely hike to the North Pole before his time is up.
Death in the West's popular culture is somewhat taboo. Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, for instance, are celebrated for their youth and beauty.
Ken Arnold, head of public programs at The Wellcome Trust, says that "modern society has succeeded in making death all but invisible. However, as these remarkable portraits reveal, contemplating the certainty of death can provide beautiful and moving insights into one of the most profound experiences we all still face."
The pair hope to bring the exhibition "Life Before Death" to New York City.