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Maggie Donahue | Longreads | October 2022 | 5,479 words (19 minutes)
Heide Hatry’s home is a testament to mortality.
Amid the knickknacks, wine glasses, paintings, and art supplies scattered about the artist’s Manhattan apartment are stacks of books: Death’s Door, Man’s Concern with Death, Man Answers Death, A Brief History of Death, Design for Dying, Death to Dust, Japanese Death Poems. Curiosities like animal skulls, abandoned shells, and dried flower bouquets line her shelves, including a bouquet she says is from a friend’s memorial service. A print of a plump pig hangs on one wall — a nod, perhaps, to Hatry’s childhood growing up on a pig farm. A few taxidermied rats appear to crawl about the space, and a soft-eyed stuffed baboon stands in one corner, the hint of a grin peeking out under its long nose.
Hatry is slender, with a face that is all edges — sharp cheekbones, angled brows, inverted triangle lips drawn tightly together above a strong jaw. Her raven-black hair, threaded with silver, is teased up into an intricate mass atop her head, drawing a dramatic contrast to her fair skin. Her green eyes are rendered almost stern by the glint of her rectangular spectacles.
And yet there is nothing severe about her appearance as she moves about the room. Her steady, warm smile softens her features as she picks up items and shares their stories with me. First, a cherrywood shadow box, encasing two Japanese lantern flies stuck to a hand-painted flower stem on a 19th-century print. Then, a cream-colored taxidermied rat, frozen in a slightly splayed stance, his curved teeth poking out of his mouth.
But the objects that have the most presence — that, in a place filled with nods to death, seem to contribute an assertion of life — are the hyperrealistic black-and-white portraits on her walls. Some depict pets: a dog, some cats, a bird, a snake. Others are of people. A series of three portraits show Hatry’s friend, the late writer James Purdy, at three different stages of his life, growing older from frame to frame.
From where I stand, each lifelike face looks as if it was created from charcoal, brought to life with pointillistic specks and dark strokes.
But Hatry doesn’t use charcoal. She depicts humans and animals using their ashes.
These artworks are part of Hatry’s “Icons in Ash” project. Since her first piece made of cremated remains in 2009, hundreds of bereaved individuals have approached her to create a memorial portrait of their loved one. Those left behind can look upon the deceased, talk to them, sit with them and, perhaps, come to better process their death.
Death is one of the few truly universal experiences of humanity. We all die. We all lose loved ones. And yet it’s a subject many of us would prefer to bury in the back of our minds.
But here I was, sitting in this artist’s apartment on a spring day in 2022, face to face with countless reminders of my own mortality. After years of pushing death away, I was beginning to think there might be some value in integrating it into my life.
It used to be that we were much more connected to our dead.
In her book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, mortician and “good death” advocate Caitlin Doughty writes that “not being forced to see corpses is a privilege of the developed world.” For most of human existence, death was not only an everyday occurrence, more prevalent due to disease and war, but something that happened at home. People died at home, cared for the body at home, had funerals at home. Death was more familiar and seen as a natural part of life.
In some cultures, keeping the dead nearby is a sacred and profound experience. In Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s largest islands, the Toraja people live with the corpses of their loved ones, sometimes for years. They bathe, exhume, and dry the bodies in the sun, before dressing them and inviting them back into the home, where they’ll remain among the family until they’ve saved enough money for an elaborate funeral. In the Philippines, the Tinguian people engage in a similar practice. After a loved one dies, they clean and dress the corpse, sit them up on a chair, surround them with offerings, and protect them from evil spirits. Sometimes they place a cigarette in the corpse’s mouth. In Bolivia, some people house and care for ñatitas: human skulls that are thought to bestow good luck, protection, and fertility on those who look after them. They are brought out for an annual celebration called the Día de las Ñatitas.
Throughout history, people have kept loved ones close after they’ve died. In the 19th century, people across Europe and the U.S. saved pieces of a decedent’s hair and worked them into earrings, brooches, or intricate memorial wreaths. Since ancient times, death masks — cast molds of a corpse’s face — were also a way to create permanent mementos of the dead, from political leaders and royalty to artists and scientists. Bereaved families sometimes commissioned posthumous portraits of their dead — paintings of the body designed to look as though the subject were alive.
In 19th-century America, the high death toll during the Civil War contributed to the rise of disposition techniques like embalming, which preserved the bodies of soldiers who were transported home to their families. Over time, embalming became popular with the general public, and the responsibility of caring for dead bodies shifted to funeral practitioners. The death industry standardized, transforming into a commercial machine. Meanwhile, new medical technology pushed death further out of sight as people started dying in hospitals rather than at home.
Deborah Carr, a sociology professor at Boston University who has written extensively on death and bereavement, says that people didn’t struggle as much with death in the past as they do today, in part because death was swift. Now, modern medicine extends the process. “The sorrow — that’s persistent,” she says. “But the fear, the discomfort, is a product of the technological end-of-life care that we’ve had for much of contemporary history.” This evolving approach to care hardened the line between the living and the dead, separating Americans from everyday reminders of mortality.
As a child, Heide Hatry was immersed in a world of meat and flesh.
There, on a patch of farmland on the outskirts of Holzgerlingen, Germany, death was not only commonplace but commodified. There was no room to be squeamish when she had to face violence daily, when that violence was a way of life for her family. Before Hatry turned 6, her grandfather taught her how to kill chickens and to skin rabbits. At one point, her father moved the family to a pig farm in Schlosshof. There, she was raised under the immense pressure to work, and to work hard.
“In my family there was no talking, basically,” she tells me. “Only orders. ‘Do this, do that.’” Interactions were mostly utilitarian. There were no hugs, and no one ever said “I love you.” She remembers being very small and overwhelmed, laboring alone in a field in the afternoon, sometimes in the rain, waiting for her father to come and relieve her. He never thanked or complimented her on hard work. It was what was expected.
The only creature on the farm she felt she could really confide in was the family chain dog, Prince, a massive German Shepherd-St. Bernard mix who guarded the entrance of the property. Hatry felt sorry for him, seeing him chained up alone every day. She started talking to him, telling him her problems. She called him her “psychologist.”
“It was a very weird relationship,” she says. “We became friends. And I felt like he totally understood me.”
One day, Prince seemed unhappy. Hatry knew that in front of the stable there were dead pigs, lined up in rows, that would be taken to the factory. Hatry asked her father if she could cut some meat from one of the pigs and feed it to her dog.
“He gave me this huge knife,” she tells me. “And I cut a piece off of the pig’s ass.”
Hatry’s father, seeing how comfortable she was with the meat, put her to work. He brought her down to the basement of the house, to a little room joined to the walk-in freezer, and taught her how to cut up a pig carcass. He showed her which parts of the pig were good, and how to slice, package, and label the meat. He offered her a job to cut the pigs into pieces that their family would eat.
While theirs was a busy and hardworking household, Hatry recalls some calm and formative moments. Her father had a quiet appreciation for art, and on rare slow afternoons, he’d lift her onto his lap and show her how to draw animals using numbers. She remembers how he’d turned the long curve of the number “2” into the neck of a swan. These lessons were her first introduction to art.
Hatry and her father grew to share a work ethic and an appreciation for everyday things. Her father hated wasting anything, and saw potential — even beauty — in discarded trash. He built most of their farm out of recycled materials he found at the dump. As I look around Hatry’s apartment, I see this influence on the walls and shelves: in religious figurines with missing limbs, the eyeless head of a baby doll with a crack running down one side of its face, the broken claw foot of a stone lion.
When Hatry was in her late 20s, her father died. She was devastated: She felt like she lost a part of herself. She couldn’t believe he was gone and couldn’t understand why he had to die. Circumstances around his death also felt strange, and she came to suspect that it might have been a suicide.
For many years, she buried her grief.
After a painful divorce, in 2003 Hatry moved from Germany to New York, brimming with ideas. She made a name for herself as a conceptual artist and provocateur, introducing her work at MoMA PS1 and the New Museum in New York City, and exhibiting at many galleries and museums all over the world, from London to Beijing, from L.A. to Berlin. Still, her art is controversial, often steeped in the macabre, examining what it is to be human — what it means to be alive — by examining what is not.
For most of her career, Hatry has worked with recycled flesh acquired from slaughterhouses: materials with a history, a significance. Like the skulls and taxidermied animals scattered about her apartment, these materials were once part of a living thing. Now, they give life to her art.
In her early projects, Hatry sculpted human figures — alter egos for herself — using pig parts. She gave them names and backstories. In 2012, she created hyperrealistic flowers out of offal: fish tails, crab claws, deer eyelashes, and chicken combs. She named the project “Not a Rose” after one particularly apt depiction of a rose that she made from the tips of duck tongues. She photographed these flowers outside in natural settings — nestled in bushes, floating on lily pads, blooming out of a tangle of grass — attempting to trick spectators into believing they were natural plants.
“When they found out what they were, they felt trapped, or disgusted, or tricked,” she says. And that was the point: to question our understanding of beauty.
A few years after moving to New York, Hatry visited a friend and saw that he kept his wife’s ashes in an urn on his mantle. Germany has strict burial regulations, and it’s still illegal in most places for families to keep the cremated remains of their loved ones. It was the first time Hatry had encountered ashes in someone’s home. She felt extremely touched.
It was around that time, in 2008, that she suffered another huge loss. One of Hatry’s best friends — Stefan, a writer she’d known in Germany — died by suicide. She had not known he’d been so unhappy, and could not believe she hadn’t known. She felt completely out of her mind, paralyzed by grief. Not only was she confronted with the loss of her close friend, but suddenly all of the unresolved pain and guilt she’d felt over her father’s death returned.
At first, she didn’t know what to do with herself. But the answer came to her quickly, as if something were forcing her to do it, and she felt a strange calm:
I have to make portraits out of my father’s and Stefan’s ashes.
For most of my childhood, unlike Hatry’s, death was a distant and abstract concern.
I didn’t consider the pain of death itself, the uncertainty of what might follow, or the realities of its impact on those left behind — what it might be like to lose loved ones, or for my loved ones to lose me.
In the summer of 2019, when I was 23 and working as a guide at a remote lodge in Alaska, I watched a float plane, carrying a family, take off from the dock. It was something I’d seen a dozen times before, but this time I heard a loud metallic clang. When I looked up, the plane was bobbing upside-down in the water. One of the passengers, a man whose hand I’d shaken only an hour before, died in the crash.
The experience left me with a pressing, uncomfortable awareness of the thin line between life and death. I became all too conscious of my body’s frailty, of my eventual disappearance from this world, and the fact that those I love would one day disappear, too.
And then, a few months after that accident, I was confronted with a loss of my own.
Grandma Zona had been suffering from dementia for years. Most of my clearest memories of her are from her final years, rather than the time before her dementia set in. As I processed the news of her death, I struggled to piece together my memories of the person I’d known and loved as a child.
Her name was Bonnie, but we called her Grandma Zona because, when I was young, she had lived in Arizona. Her biannual trips to our home in the Chicago suburbs were some of my happiest times. I remember our many family games, and how she moved about the house, beaming, belting out old show tunes. I remember how she brimmed with love for us, doling out compliments about how beautiful and smart and talented we were. I remember her warm, infectious laugh — and how she laughed with her whole body.
She had a necklace of 18 little figures that represented each of her grandkids: triangles and circles to represent girls and boys, strung up in order of birth on the chain, each embedded with their corresponding birthstone. She often marveled at the family she had built, how lucky she was. That sentiment remained in her final years, even as a disease ate her memories.
When my family came together for her funeral, sharing stories from her life, it troubled me that there was so much of her I had not known, or had forgotten. And I thought, too, about how she had gone. She was as full of life as anyone I’d ever known, yet she disintegrated, bit by bit, as her brain failed her. When she was cremated, it seemed she was gone altogether, reduced to ash.
I had no foundational understanding of death. I feared it. I wanted to pick apart my fear to understand it — and maybe feel less afraid. Yet I’ve struggled to find others who are interested in having that conversation. In their absence, I’ve turned to people who’ve made careers out of asking these kinds of questions.
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Christina Staudt, who trained as a death doula and uses those skills in her work as a hospice volunteer, says studying a variety of philosophical and practical approaches to mortality may help some people feel less fearful of death, once they realize there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to cope.
“It can be very helpful to look at that fear,” says Staudt, who is also a co-chair of the Columbia University Seminar on Death. “Anytime we name something, it seems a little bit less scary.”
While I didn’t know it at the time, this is exactly what I did in the months following the plane crash and my grandma’s death. I began to lean into my discomfort, desperate to learn how others face death so that I might find ways to deal with it, too.
That’s how I first came face to face with Hatry’s cremation portraits.
The pain of loss — and the impact of seeing ashes on a mantle for the first time — drove Hatry to launch “Icons in Ash.”
For Hatry, creating portraits of her father and her best friend were immediate ways to face her grief: a feeling she’d pushed deep down for many years.
But when Hatry undertook these first pieces, she didn’t actually have her father’s or Stefan’s ashes. So she used a substitute — ashes of cremated pets that owners chose not to take home — and convinced herself that it really was them. It took her about six months just to develop the right technique. Ultimately, she landed on mosaic, but instead of manipulating pieces of rock or glass, she used tiny particles of ash.
To create her surface, she covered a piece of wood in hot beeswax. After the wax cooled, she applied a small amount of ash to the tip of a scalpel. After heating a section of the portrait so that the wax became sticky, she inserted ash into the wax. For particularly detailed parts of the face, like the eyes or mouth, she placed each ash particle into the wax one by one. To complete her palette, she incorporated black birch ash, a symbol of life, and white marble dust, a symbol of death.
Speck by speck, the face of each man emerged, almost lifesize on the canvas. The process was a meditation, so intricate that it monopolized her attention, which otherwise might have returned to her sadness. Through the process, she found herself talking to them, expressing all the anger and guilt she had felt over their deaths, all the unsaid things the men as she’d known them would never hear.
When she completed their portraits, she felt that she had overcome her grief. She still missed them, but she was able to function again. She could look at them, talk to them, feel their presence as she moved about her home. She saw each man’s portrait as a way to merge their memory and their physicality — a way to recreate their essence. Making the portraits had given her a slower and more complete way of saying goodbye.
Hatry’s father, now perched prominently on a shelf in her apartment, certainly looks alive, his image surprisingly warm and full of character. His face is hard and angled like hers — sharp cheeks and a familiarly strong jaw further contoured by a shadow of a beard. He’ll spend eternity squinting open-mouthed at something to his right, his aquiline nose permanently scrunched, his felt cap pointing in the direction of whatever has held his gaze.
He had been lost to Hatry for decades. Now, he’s always with her.
“Anima In Ash” is Hatry’s complementary art project dedicated to making memorial portraits from the ashes of pets.
Hatry knew that no one would offer up the remains of their loved ones to be hung or sold in a gallery. Instead, she saw “Icons In Ash” as a social project: a service she could provide to people in mourning, a business she could market to funeral homes. To date, she’s been commissioned to create hundreds of portraits. They are not necessarily portrayals of people as they looked when they died, but rather how their loved ones best remembered them, or wanted to remember them.
I wonder what a cremation portrait of Grandma Zona might look like — her animated smile frozen in time — and what it would be like to have an image of her younger self in my home. Would it help me feel more connected to the grandma I knew from my childhood?
Hatry tells me that those who commission her are invariably the inconsolable, people who have loved someone so deeply that they don’t want to ever be without them. One woman, Hatry says, contacted her to create a portrait of her sick daughter who had not yet died. The mother sent Hatry a photo in advance, so that Hatry could quickly get to work when the time came. This woman didn’t want to be without her child. Not even for one day.
While hundreds of commissions may be evidence that there’s a market for these portraits, many of the people I’ve introduced to Hatry’s work quail at the idea.
“There are, of course, people who find it horrifying,” Hatry has said of her work. “But they find, rather, death horrifying — not so much what I’m doing.”
Death is something we push away, she has said. “It happens in the hospital, in the funeral home. We don’t want to have to do anything with it. And I think our lives would be very much enriched if we changed that.”
I spoke with Gary Laderman, a religion professor at Emory University studying death and funeral rituals, who says that adverse reactions to Hatry’s work might be primal, stemming from deep confusion or repulsion related to the body. There may also be cultural considerations. While in some cultures, like the Torajans in Indonesia, keeping the dead close is a longtime practice, many traditions demand that dead bodies be kept separate from the living. Many Jewish and Christian traditions still hold that bodies should be returned to the ground, and in Islam, burial typically happens as soon as possible. Members of the Zoroastrian faith in India believe dead bodies are so unclean that they contaminate everything they touch. To prevent contamination, they place bodies on towers, leaving them to be devoured by vultures and other scavengers, before their sunbleached skeletons are moved to designated pits to disintegrate.
But some experts sense a shift in people’s attitudes about death. The hospice movement helped to bring the act of dying back into the home. Large-scale tragedies, like 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic, have helped make death feel more immediate and integrated into daily American life. And Western society has shown growing attitudinal support for things like physician-assisted suicide, Carr told me. More people, particularly younger people or those who don’t belong to conservative religious faiths or hold conservative political beliefs, believe that if someone is suffering, with no hope of recovery, they should be allowed the option of a self-determined death.
As the thinking around death shifts, so have trends in disposition. In the last couple of decades, cremation has supplanted traditional burial as the most common funerary practice in America. Catholics have been allowed to cremate their loved ones since the ’60s, and while the adoption of the practice has been slow, some say the trend is picking up as it becomes more socially acceptable among them. Others believe the rise of cremation correlates with the rise of the “Nones” — people with no religious affiliation, whose growing prevalence may also contribute to shifts in cultural ideas about rituals and the body.
Among other reasons for cremation’s popularity, as suggested in this Washington Post piece, is an ongoing cultural fear of death. Cremation is appealing because it sanitizes it, quickly disappearing bodies so that the bereaved don’t need to engage with them. Carr says there may be a bit of truth to this theory. “You just get a box of ashes,” she says. “It takes the body out of death.” But she also cites other reasons for the rise in cremation, including factors like cost and a growing concern for the environment.
Laderman is less convinced that the spike in cremation is a symptom of death denial. He also attributes it to cost, as well as convenience and practicality — all of which are deeply American considerations. Urban areas have limited burial space, and cremation is far cheaper than burial. “Why shouldn’t American characteristics and capitalist realities that we all live by be also informing a part of the death industry?” he asks me.
In the presence of Hatry and all these artifacts in her apartment, I consider what it means to think proactively about death, to participate more consciously in the end of life. Many of us will choose from a growing number of green burial options. We may be buried beneath a tree, placed in a simple compostable casket, or enshrouded in a mushroom suit that reduces the release of harmful pollutants from the body. A new technology in development at Columbia University’s DeathLab could decompose a corpse using anaerobic microbial digestion, a process that can release enough energy to generate light.
There are also movements to deeply personalize disposition, to send someone off in a way that is intimate and meaningful. Your remains may be shot up in a cannon amid fireworks. They can be worked into Eternal Reefs, a sea burial alternative that incorporates cremains into concrete memorials that then become permanent habitats for marine life. Or, your ashes might be turned into memorial diamonds to be worn by loved ones and later passed down to your descendants. “We’re in a state — because of the internet, social media, general cultural zeitgeist we’re in — of this proliferation of different ways that people can keep their dead close by, in a very material sense,” says Laderman.
His words rang true as I continued to research emerging trends. I discovered that a bereaved lover can keep the ashes of their spouse in a glass dildo. A child can cuddle with a teddy bear containing the ashes of a deceased parent. There’s also a way to embed ashes into tattoo ink, so you can “wear” your loved one permanently in your skin. We’re living in a time when people are more open to experiment, says Laderman, customizing rituals based on personalities.
Staudt says these trends are part of a bigger movement toward more active participation in the process of death, and establishing new rituals. Some people are becoming more engaged in end-of-life care, or starting to explore after-death care — closing the mouth, washing the body, combing the hair, straightening the clothes. Others are opting to attend cremations, hosting ceremonies at the crematorium or even being present when the body is pushed into the retort. Staudt says all of these forms of participation can be very meaningful for the bereaved, and that these positive interactions can sometimes function as a gain alongside the loss. “People seem to really integrate that experience,” she says. “It’s something beautiful that becomes part of the loss.”
Seeing some of Hatry’s cremation portraits up close, I can see how they could transform a loss into something more positive over time. If some people view cremation as a disintegration of the body — a person reduced to ashes, scattered in the wind — Hatry’s portraits do the opposite. These cremains become permanent, forever present in the lives of those left behind.
Despite growing up on a pig farm and working with organic materials for much of her art career, Hatry tells me that working on these portraits was the first time she’d successfully confronted and accepted death. As we talk openly in her home, her smile steady and movements gentle as she shows me her unusual possessions, it strikes me that this is someone who isn’t just facing mortality. She’s leaning all the way in — and emerging all the better for it.
“People never think about their own death,” she says. “And that was so exciting, to realize, at a pretty young age, that I have to die.” Death was normal. It could happen to anyone, she realized, even if they were young or healthy. This early awareness has shaped her worldview — and molded her into the artist she is today.
“I am a very happy person,” she tells me. “I am able to see positive things in almost everything.” Engaging with death as deeply as she does has not pulled her into a dark state. Far from it. It has made her think more consciously about what she wants from life — about how to use her time for what she wants to accomplish, what she wants to be remembered for, what makes her happy.
“It’s just something that is at the end of everybody’s life,” she says. “The first time I could imagine it, that was powerful.”
I say goodbye to Hatry, step outside into the dark, and walk to catch my bus. The warm faces immortalized on her walls seem to swim before my vision, and I can’t stop thinking about the tender way she looked at them, the reverence with which she spoke of them as she told their stories. Sitting on the bus, I am hurtling through the night, surrounded by strangers, nothing but black and faint blurs of light out the window. But I am not afraid.
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve lived in a state of constant memento mori, inundated with daily reminders that we will die.
It’s unclear how the pandemic will impact our relationship to death in the long term. The early months in 2020 complicated and dramatically altered the process of loss and grief. Funerals were delayed, at least one last breath was livestreamed, and many bereaved families were deprived of the finality of service altogether. The pandemic made death more visible and inescapable for anyone tapped into the news. Three years in, death feels much more quotidian — but collectively, we’ve still not reached a point where we’re talking about it openly, as Hatry and I had been.
“On some deeper, spiritual, existential, unconscious level, we’re all kind of just grieving,” Laderman tells me. “Death is so close.” He says the line between the living and the dead is blurring, and he hopes that means we’ll continue to shift toward more frank conversations about death.
New resources and community forums point in this direction. In 2011, Caitlin Doughty founded The Order of the Good Death, a death positive movement working to reframe conversations about mortality so that people can engage with the topic in a healthy, honest way; the site also shares end-of-life planning and green burial resources. And Doughty has a YouTube channel, “Ask a Mortician,” which reaches nearly two million subscribers.
Virtual and in-person Death Cafes have formed around the world, in 82 countries and counting, where strangers come together to “eat cake, drink tea, and discuss death.” I’ve also downloaded WeCroak, an app that reminds me, at intervals throughout the day, of my own mortality. “Don’t forget, you’re going to die,” it alerts me, and then shares a quote like this one from E. M. Forster: “Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him.”
I don’t have a portrait or keepsake made of the ashes from a loved one, but I’ve begun to sprinkle mementos of death into my own home — which, naturally, are also reminders of life: An Icons in Ash book that Hatry gave me when I visited her apartment. A tiny, ruby-embedded figure — a representation of me — that Grandma Zona wore on her necklace. A photo of her surrounded by all of her grandchildren during a trip to Lake Michigan.
I keep her close, in my own way, so that she won’t disappear.
The summer after she died, my family gave her a final sendoff. She’d wanted a version of a Viking funeral, in which one’s remains are set out on a flaming ship at sunset, alongside objects that they might need in the afterlife. In a Harper’s essay, “To Be a Field of Poppies,” Lisa Wells writes about how, as a child, she’d wanted a Viking funeral herself after seeing one depicted in the film Rocket Gibraltar.
“Legend has it,” a narrator says in the film, “that if the color of the setting sun and the color of the burning ship were the same, then that Viking had led a good life.”
We gathered at Grandma Zona’s favorite beach along Lake Michigan. We signed our names on a box of her ashes and placed it on a tiny Viking ship my cousin had built, alongside M&Ms and chocolate chip cookies — a few things she loved — for the journey.
We cast the boat out into the water, set it on fire, and watched it burn as the sky blazed yellow, orange, and red.
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