I visited this unique cemetery in Bali, Indonesia. Perched on a boat as it powered toward an island covered in undergrowth, it had begun to spit with rain as the island came into view. I sat next to a couple who had visited Bali for many years but were on the lookout for something different that they had not witnessed before. Someone had told them about this unique island, and tourists are welcome to visit in the way anyone would visit a normal cemetery. Here, relatives leave the bodies of their loved ones to decay naturally in the open, under bamboo cages on the edge of the lake. In this Balinese village of Trunyan, the dead are left under this large Taru Menyan tree, which allows a pleasant smell to waft into the air so the smell of death is not so overbearing in this space.
People all deal with death on different levels and I understand this completely. Brought up in the Western world, death is hidden from society and we are taught to be repulsed by dead bodies. It is very different in a lot of countries outside of the Western world; they do not treat death in the same way. For as long as I can remember, I have had this fascination with death. It may seem morbid, disgusting or weird for many people but I understand not everyone feels similarly about everything in life.
My photos lean towards showing beauty in darkness, death and decay. I compose and edit my photos in an aesthetically pleasing way, often ending with images that can be called beautiful despite their subject. I don’t just document the things I see; I try to make them carry emotion and have a strong impact on the viewer.
Until that day, I had not seen a dead body but for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to; it is a fascination with really and genuinely wanting to experience this ending moment of a humans’ life. To me, this is not weird or gross and despite the sadness of that person passing, death is a part of the cycle of life and for me it is a special thing. I believe everyone has a soul and at death, it departs from the body and goes elsewhere. What is left is the ‘machine’ that allowed the soul’s story to live on this earth. I don’t see a corpse as a thing that should repulse you. I’ve always believed this. People would tell me again and again that my thoughts would change when I finally saw a body but my thoughts are still the same. The three of us arrived and crept up the stone steps into the glowing green trees.
First, I saw rows of skulls on the top of a wall, moss growing all around, a beautiful twisting tree to the right, and then I turned to see the cages. I walked up to them, peering inside. They contained mainly bones and skulls and clothing. Then I saw a cage made from brand new bamboo; I knew that inside would be a new body. I took a deep breath and wandered close. Everyone had gone at this point I was alone experiencing this moment. Inside the bamboo cage, the body was fresh the corpse inside only a day or two old. I said a prayer and leaned down close to his face, just inches away. Flies were on his face but he looked peaceful, like he was sleeping. I just stared I couldn’t look away. I felt overwhelmed at the experience of witnessing death in its truest form. For his loved ones, his death will bring sadness and pain but the fact he had been displayed in this way for even tourists to come and take pictures, showed that they too were at comfort with his body being here in this way. For me, it took me on a spiritual journey. I did not cry as I have done at a lot of the tragic sites I have been to. I felt sadness for the people he had left behind but he had lived his story and now his soul and energy are free to go wherever they may go next.
And so my first experience seeing a corpse was a beautiful one; calming, with trees and birdsong all around me. The driver of the boat was calling to me to come back. He didn’t speak English so I played ignorant for a while so I could just stand in that place a little longer and reflect. So many people have told me that death is not a beautiful thing. They are welcome to their opinions but for me, that body was like a storybook and whatever had happened in his life will be told through the photos and memories of his loved ones. His body will turn to dust and his soul will escape.