How to grieve in America: Iowa City photographer Rachel Cox turns her focus to our shared spaces of grief

Virtual Gallery Talk: Rachel Cox and Laura Burkhalter

Online—Sunday, Nov. 22 at 1:30 p.m.

Rachel Cox, Untitled #32 — courtesy of the artist

It’s a simple, but profound question: Why do we grieve in the way that we do?

Photographer Rachel Cox has been contemplating our process of grief for a few years now as she’s worked composing a series of photographs focused on our shared physical spaces of grieving. This series, Mors Scena, comprises her Iowa Artists 2020 exhibition currently on display at the Des Moines Art Center’s Blank One Gallery.

Cox is based in Iowa City and currently works as the Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of Iowa. Her photographs have been exhibited in national and international galleries and have appeared in publications including Time, the Huffington Post, VICE and the Guardian.

Rachel Cox and Des Moines Art Center Curator Laura Burkhalter will be hosting a Virtual Gallery Talk on Sunday, Nov. 22 at 1:30 p.m over Zoom. You can also virtually tour the exhibit space on your own. The exhibit will be on display at the Des Moines Art Center until Jan. 3.

I talked to Cox over the phone about Mors Scena and what it’s like to present her work at this moment. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Cox’s exhibit at the Des Moines Art Center. — courtesy of the artist

You have stated that Mors Scena has origins in a previous long-term photographic series about your grandmother. How did this series originate from that experience, and what was your process of composing these photographs?

The end of this project I made about my grandmother, which was over the duration of about a decade, ended in her passing away from a rare degenerative brain disease. The project wasn’t about that; that’s just sort of what happened towards the end of the time when I was photographing her. After she passed away, we were in the funeral home that my family uses in Texas. I think that experience just sort of stayed with me. This is a small town kind of funeral home that serves multiple people in the same family, so my grandpa also had his service at the same funeral home. And it’s smaller, family run, kind of mid-20th century design on the interior.

There’s a photograph I made of me with my grandmother and her body. It’s the last photograph I took of us together, and that is in the book for this project. That’s an image that I don’t ever print for exhibition or I’ve never tried to sell it. I made it in 2012, and it’s kind of a really personal photograph. It’s a picture that I revisited a few years after I made it, and I’ve just kind of always been interested in that experience of being in the funeral home and remembering the interior. It was a really strange interior design, and over the years, I’ve just thought about why it looked that way and why a lot of funeral homes look that way. It really just started with questions, like why so many funeral homes have the same kind of interior design. Why have they not really evolved that much, and where did this come from? Why did we get to this point where we needed this sort of theatrical staging for how we handle and process death? And so those questions just led to further research over the next year or so when I started really diving into it photographically.

Let’s talk about that aspect of theater. The exhibition’s title, Mors Scena, can be translated from the Latin as death theater, or stage. Without human subjects, these photographs look closely at the common architecture and components of funeral homes. How do you see these physical spaces presenting themselves as a part of theater?

When I stage these photographs, I am building them for a camera and camera optics. So I know the focal length of my lens. I know how wide of a view I was going to get. I know my range for color and lighting. I know how much of that exposure range I was going to be able to record. So every decision I make is also based on how I know it’s gonna look in a picture. But you could also say that when I’m arranging that for a camera, I’m arranging it for a viewer, and that’s the same thing that the funeral directors are doing: They’re arranging these same spaces for an audience to view and see.

It’s very much like a stage, so they have lighting, they have a series of warm and cool lights that they use on bodies. You mix them in different degrees which provides this more lifelike glow on someone if there is an open casket, but I use those to highlight the fact that the lights are even there. When there’s not a body to have the light fall on, when you just see the blue or the purple light or whatever, then there’s maybe more of a question of well, “Why is that even there?” These objects exist in a funeral home to build a sense of this perceived elegance or this familiarity of a homey kind of space because, at the same time, they’re trying to be comfortable, like it could be your living room. But it’s also a little more formalized than that. I think that I’m concerned with how a viewer of the actual photographic object is going to construct meaning or have them ask questions.

Maybe a year ago I was a little worried if my photographs were becoming repetitive. I was thinking that there’s too many curtains in all these places and I feel like that’s gonna look repetitive. Maybe I should try to find places that don’t have any crazy ornamental draperies — but they all do, so I just accepted it. I thought about how I could use the curtains photographically to act as metaphors for access, like psychological access. There’s a couple of pictures in the series where the curtains are half closed or half open and you can’t really see what’s on the other side of them.

So I was thinking a lot about our relationship with death and how we sort of aren’t too comfortable with it and we want to stay at arm’s length, and so this full psychological or conscious acceptance of people’s mortality is questionable. I don’t know if everybody would get that, but that’s sort of what I was thinking. That’s an actual example of why I might close the curtain halfway, but in the funeral homes, they essentially use them kind of like this grand reveal. In some of the funeral homes they keep them closed until the service starts and then they pull them back like the start of a show or whatever. So it’s a very different function for the same item or the same piece of furniture or architecture within the space.

Rachel Cox, Untitled #22 — courtesy of the artist

These photographs also speak in many ways about social and economic class. The rural and small town funeral homes featured in this series have often housed several generations of families’ grief. How do you think these photographs address that sense of historical, yet localized grief?

I would say there’s a huge history in the late Victorian era, like later 19th century and early 20th century, of mourning practices in the larger middle class essentially trying to sort of mimic the stylings of the upper, elite nobility classes. This idea of trying to mimic the upper class in life displays, I mean we see that all the time, especially in American culture, but that translates to death as well, mimicking and trying to provide a luxurious elegant environment and atmosphere when you’re saying goodbye to someone. That’s definitely something that’s for the living, you know, that’s something that makes people feel better: they have these beautiful, elegant things to project their grief onto. I think that some of the history I’ve been looking at is how this idea of trying to ape or mimic the stylings of an upper class has dissolved a little bit by the mid-20th century in these rurally-located funeral homes, but it’s still there.

When you go to them and everyone’s got their theatrical lighting to more or less a degree, and they have their very dated ornamental kind of draperies and sometimes that’s matched to some ornamental carpet. There’s this whole change up in the viewing areas of the funeral homes and how it directs our attention to what we look at. That is something that is a remainder from that time period, and it absolutely has lots to do with class. There’s also the whole idea of what you can afford to pay for at a funeral home. It’s unfortunately linked to class and linked to how much you love someone. Like if you can spend the extra $1,200 on some amazing casket sprays like flower arrangements on this casket. That is a visual indicator of how much you love someone. That’s sad to say, but it’s totally true.

We tend to think of funeral homes as being caught in amber, aesthetically and functionally. Many of the funeral homes you have photographed haven’t renovated their decor in decades. In the process of photographing these funeral homes, you also interviewed their directors. What did you learn about how their businesses are changing, and how do those changes affect our grieving process?

When I talked to funeral home directors (and they’re not all older, some of them are younger; it’s very much a family kind of passed down business), they’re really clinging to this way of processing and confronting death, and they’re very much advocating for the direct kind of confrontation and acceptance of people dying. Embalming is something they still push, and open caskets or being around the body and having some sort of service because that direct confrontation or direct acknowledgement of somebody passing psychologically is supposed to just be more healthy.

Rachel Cox, Untitled #27 — courtesy of the artist

I say this because I’ve been to over 30 funeral homes, but I haven’t photographed them all because earlier on, I discovered that there’s a lot that are transitioning to this new movement called “celebrant.” This is a much more contemporary modern, younger kind of movement that a lot of funeral homes are transitioning to where there’s no bodies if they’re doing cremation, or they just don’t even have a body anywhere on the premises and the interiors look like banquet halls. I went to one actually here in Iowa City where they had this patio that had grills and spaces for kegs of beer. So it was essentially having a big party celebrating a person’s life.

It’s a very different way of processing death, but it’s becoming very common, and so the old schoolers at these more rural funeral homes would address this. Sometimes I’d ask them about it and they had a lot to say because they believe that that is delusional by not seeing [the body] and accepting it. By not looking at the body, you’re further distancing yourself from this reality, and I think that’s super interesting because I’ve never really thought about that relationship to a Victorian kind of understanding.

This exhibition is tragically timely in its subject matter. What has putting together this exhibition over the last few months taught you about our process of grieving? Can you offer any insight into what it’s like to present this series in the context of this moment?

I stopped making pictures back in April, really as a way just to kind of take a break and reexamine what I was making to determine what my tone was and to make sure that I wasn’t doing something that was exploiting people or exploiting an industry. These pictures are not in any way a critique on these specific places or this particular funeral home or whatever. It’s nothing like that. I am still very much drawn to these places. I think they’re very beautiful in some ways, and I’m very much drawn to them.

My critique is really about how we feel comfortable processing grief and the things we need to do that. I’m not making a statement about how I feel about it, I just want to show it to people because I don’t know yet how I feel about it either. Part of these images is also this more personal exploration of what my relationship to death is. My parents are much older, and so [I’m] thinking about, “What do they want?” So I think about my own insecurities with it, too. Again, I’m not making a definitive statement that I think these things are doing us harm or they’re doing us good, I just want to show how it’s working.

This is the first time I’ve ever had these works exhibited because they’re so new. I’ve had just a handful of conversations with people who work at the museum and a couple of people who came through the show when I was there. I’ve had a few emails on my website too from people talking about recent experiences with death, and they recognize that funeral home or whatever. Everyone’s talking about how hard an experience it was, but they also felt this sort of uncanny strangeness in the funeral home. They said they recognized the space or that these spaces reminded them of a funeral home they used in their hometown, and that they really resonated with it. What’s weird about these stories is they’re not super specific. It’s more of a general feeling, like this made me conjure up a memory or this brought me back to an experience I had. That’s a deeper kind of connection that I think is hard to articulate, even if it’s on a very base, experiential level.

It’s definitely poignant and it’s becoming more and more poignant as this tragedy of the pandemic is just getting larger and larger. And I think that maybe, in some ways, seeing photographs of a funeral home, it’s a pretty stark reminder of the reality of that without it being graphic. I’m thinking about early on back in the spring when they first started releasing photographs of the refrigerated trucks in New York that they were having to store people in. That’s not a graceful way to think about people dying. Not at all. I was just thinking about that recently when I saw my show exhibited, everything up on the wall for the first time. There’s this recurring theme of: here’s a space where people do say goodbye to people. And for me, I guess that was a more gracious, maybe even kind of strangely beautiful, space.

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