• Vol. 01
  • Chapter 05
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Impressions of Death

He made the switch from life to death.

Life classes presented petrified models. He sketched them as best he could, but was always sensitive to unbidden twitches.

A bird found dead in his garden suggested alternatives. Taking it indoors, dusting it down, he had drawn it. He decided to pursue lifeless models.

How to unearth similar subjects? He would begrudge rummaging in the undergrowth for luckless carcasses, a slapdash body snatcher with a sack for his dead.

From a butcher, he sourced severed heads. As he sketched, he had half-expected them to blink their eyes open, bewildered at their decapitated state. They had made for disturbing models. He would only draw the dead intact.

He made enquiries. A sympathetic taxidermist granted him access to his menagerie.

He arranged deathly tableau: a tower of birds, a pyramid of kittens, a sparrow using a cat's head for pillow.

The tower of birds had tumbled. Even in a state of rigor mortis they failed to tessellate. They stacked on paper only, superimposed figures ascending heavenwards.

Spreading wings, he made further enquiries. He left details with a zoo, was on call to record exotic departures.


Impressions of Death

He forwarded portfolios to funeral parlours, suggested himself as an artist in residence. It was either that or gatecrash, usher himself in to sneak stealth portraits of the perpetually restful. To his surprise, one expressed interest. He needn’t go rogue, hire a present-day Burke and Hare to source models.

The funeral director mentioned his work to the grieving. Following emotionally fraught consultations, it struck most as no more bizarre than skimming coffin catalogues. Objections were surprisingly limited. The chapel of rest became his second home. He enjoyed the solitude, contemplating the deceased, last gasps long exhaled. Freakish dreams were short lived; he soon settled to the dead.

Families were welcome to inspect his work.

He instilled the dead with dignity, created sombre cameos, delicately rendered memento mori, akin in spirit to death masks. We had distanced ourselves from our dead, he felt. People used to tend to their own, relatives residing at home until internment. Funeral homes seemed makeshift corpse crèches.

He encountered all sorts of new people: sizable men shoehorned into wedding suits, choking collars no longer a concern; children surrounded by toys to play with in the afterlife.

In pencil, he outlined terminal expressions: eyes fixed in an everlasting blink, final wrinkles recorded for posterity, rictus grins imparting endless serenity. Relatives talked of loved ones at peace. He saw that now.


Impressions of Death

He was surprised to discover a market for his work. He found himself taking on commissions, smuggled into chapels of rest to sketch the dead. His portraits gave great comfort to the mourning.

Of each corpse, he drew two portraits: one for the family, one for himself. Upon his living room wall, framed, his own private gallery of the dead.

He hoped that when the moment arose, he would summon the courage to draw family portraits in a similar vein.