Eleanor Oakes, The Last Stage: Funeral Homes in America

Most funeral homes are meticulously maintained and decorated. They are conceived as venues to comfort the grieving and are often abundant in impressive architectural details and plush ornamental furniture. Some are incredibly beautiful and function in ornate historic mansions passed down for generations. However, while they are referred to as “homes” the key element betraying domesticity is the theatricality of their design. The facility functions as a stage for the deceased. Most employ decorative curtains and particular lighting in their visitation rooms, along with aisles and seats facing the casket, so that all attention is directed towards the deceased.

In making pictures of these spaces, my intent is to create an unbiased perspective for the viewer. There are no judgments passed in the compositions on the funeral homes or their practices, nor on the traditions and customs chosen by any person or group as to how they honor their dead. The desire is that these images give the viewer the ability to contemplate the spaces without the usual sorrow and to see them as an acknowledged and inevitable part of our lives.
—Eleanor Oakes
(excerpted from the artist statement)

If spaces are defined by function, is it possible to create a “photographic” representation that is recorded at a moment when the space is not performing its function? In other words, are spaces inhabited by what takes place within or do spaces have innate characteristics? Oakes documents—these are the spaces that she visited and photographed, under the rubric of creating a visual narrative of funeral homes. The captioning is important in particular for images that are not clearly from a funeral home. Expectations, architectural marks are fore-grounded. The ubiquitous nature of the funeral homes is a disjuncture that the viewers are confronted with—if the chairs and the couch and the velvet curtains and the lighting fixtures could belong to any generic space, what is it about these images, which are peculiarly inhabited by time? All photographs stop time for a fraction of a second and yet, there is a sense of time in the images that seem to reach beyond anything that could or would actually happen in the spaces. The implied time is the strength of Oakes’s images, which are situated somewhere between cultural documentation and poetic narrative.
—Merve Ünsal

Click here for the artist’s website.