Actually, death is not beautiful

This photograph packs such an emotional wallop, I decided to share it even though I find it very troubling:

apparently beautiful suicide

It’s a photo of a dead woman lying on top of a car. A few minutes earlier, she had leapt from the observation platform of the Empire State Building. The force of her landing caved in the roof of the car and smashed out its windows.

Jason Kottke, who has the full story, calls it the most beautiful suicide.

Actually, no. It’s a beautiful photograph, despite the subject matter.

Suicide is never beautiful. Death is never beautiful. I know:  there have been several suicides in my family, plus several unsuccessful suicide attempts. Suicide is always a tragedy.

I will always remember a conversation I had with one member of my immediate family. Whenever anything bad happened to her, she would immediately think, “I wish I was dead.” And I don’t mean whenever something really bad happened to her — any small setback would produce the same reflexive thought.

Somewhere in her mind, there lurked the idea that death was beautiful:  the solution to all of life’s manifold problems. I wonder whether other people have the same idea. People who themselves might be potential suicide candidates.

Death is ugly. You want beauty?

Glenn Gould(Glenn Gould)

Life is beautiful.
boys laughing(by Flickr user GDabir)

Life is beautiful.
backlit, pregnant(photo by Pascal Renoux)

Life is beautiful.


19 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. McSwain
    Jul 20, 2008 @ 22:24:41

    Amen to that.


  2. Random
    Jul 21, 2008 @ 09:00:18

    “Actually, no. It’s a beautiful photograph, despite the subject matter.”

    when I first opened the blog today I saw that picture and found myself afflicted by a whole range of contradictory emotions, which I couldn’t quite explain. Stephen however hit the nail on the head. This works as art, but only if we detach it from the human significance of what is represented. Which is surely not what art is supposed to do?


  3. Bill
    Jul 21, 2008 @ 09:15:28

    I agree that death of this kind is not beautiful. Violent and or tragic death is not beautiful. However death that comes after a long happy life. A calm and graceful natural death can have a degree of beauty but it must have the human context associated with it.
    I once saw a phot of an old asian woman who’se coffin was stuffed with flowers and and a smal porcelain faced doll. The brief obit attached said her family knew how much she loved her garden so when she died they picked the blooms and burrried them with her. (no mention of the doll though)


  4. Bill
    Jul 21, 2008 @ 09:17:25

    Pardon my grammar and spelling in that last one, I typed it rather quickly.


  5. nebcanuck
    Jul 22, 2008 @ 12:08:24

    Anything can be made visually beautiful. What often gets overlooked is that beauty isn’t a purely visual trait.

    It’s this purely physical “beauty” which causes older women to get plastic surgery, or for young girls to push their own body to its limits as far as overt sexuality goes. Apparently it also causes suicidal thoughts.

    I think Random were absolutely right. The problem is the detachment of the human quality. Too often physical beauty penetrates to the core of our social consciousness, and forces people to overlook the true depth of something as breathtaking as beauty. I like Bill’s point about death having a beautiful side when it marks the calm, joyous passing of a person who has lived a full life — particularly when there’s the religious note that this person is passing on to something better. The same thing goes for sexuality — which the photograph of the pregnant woman contains, to a great extent. But the sexuality in the photograph is a far more powerful one than pictures of teenagers abusing their emotions in order to put forth a physical air of “beauty”. The sexuality here captures the physical beauty of pregnancy, but also enhances the sexuality to bring out its underlying purpose of giving life.

    The first picture truly is “pretty” or “artistic”. But it lacks the truly deep quality that makes beautiful a more powerful term than either of those. And then it becomes disturbing, because people dress it up as something completely opposite to what it is.


  6. billarends
    Jul 24, 2008 @ 11:10:44

    I forgot to mention that I really like the first photo as it shows the drama of life but I agree it is not beautiful. Tragic, dramatic or even horrific, but not beautiful. That said, beauty is most often not journalistic. I don’t like the Andy Warhol version of this photo, artistic as it may be it makes the impact of the journalistic picture trivial.


  7. Stephen
    Jul 24, 2008 @ 11:40:48

    This is a good discussion — thanks, everyone. I don’t have anything to add, but I just wanted to express appreciation for the insights each of you has shared.


  8. Random
    Jul 25, 2008 @ 05:31:47

    “I think Random were absolutely right. ”

    Nothing further to add, I just thought I’d say how nice it is to see those words on this blog 🙂


  9. Bill
    Aug 01, 2008 @ 01:40:33

    Just a side note, when I was studying journalism in the 1980’s one thing we were told was that there was an unwritten rule that photo’s of suicides while they were happening, like jumpers in the air were not ever printed. As well, too much blood was not acceptable, this likely passed because there was no visible blood. There still are very few suicides in photo journalism, but unfortunately that is changing.


  10. Anonymous
    Dec 28, 2008 @ 02:27:52

    Beauty doesn’t always mean something is good.

    Suicide is very sad and tragic, but it is also extraordinary,and something excellent of it’s kind, and according to websters dictionary that means it is beautiful. Take the movie Atonement for example, at the end both of them died, they didn’t get any time together yet the ending was beautiful. I believe that people’s delusions in the meaning of beauty is deeply associated with traditional standards of physical perfection and rightouseness.

    When I was a child I saw my uncle jump in a well, I went over to him but he just told me to go away; when I didn’t listen to him he simply went underneath the surface of the water. He commit suicide, and I watched. And it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. The tragedy and sheer desperation was truly an excellence of it’s kind.

    In short I believe that the person who posted this site is ignorant to the true meaning of beauty.


  11. Stephen
    Jan 02, 2009 @ 10:54:22

    I’m not sure what you mean, that suicide is an excellent thing of its kind.

    Suicide is a “kind” of death. Is it an excellent kind of death? I would say not.

    Coincidentally, one of my uncles died on Christmas Eve. He was an elderly man, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His wife was no longer able to care for him at home, so he was living in a nursing home. The two of them were living separately after 50 plus years of marriage.

    In those circumstances, my Uncle Bill died rather suddenly of pneumonia.

    I think his death was a beautiful thing, insofar as any death can be beautiful. He had lived a full, and fulfilling, life. He was gainfully employed all his life, working with his hands, upholstering furniture. He had hobbies outside of work that he found stimulating. He had a happy marriage. He had raised his children to adulthood, and had seen the arrival of a couple of grandchildren.

    It’s sad that Uncle Bill was ill towards the end of his life. However, he died when there was nothing more for him to look forward to, except a descent into further dementia. When, in fact, he could scarcely recognize his loved ones anymore — the people who had brought fulfillment to him in years past. And he died after a brief illness, without a prolonged period of suffering.

    You might say that his death was a beautiful thing of its kind: a relatively gentle departure from the world after a life well and fully lived.

    I realize that (post)modern people would like to broaden the definition of “beauty” so that it also encompasses ugliness. In my view, that’s a profound ignorance, or perhaps a willful distortion, of the “true meaning of beauty”.

    Suicide is a life ended prematurely, its promise unfulfilled. A life cut short in suffering, misery, and despair. That’s very ugly: there’s no beauty in it.


  12. Daniel
    Mar 04, 2009 @ 18:30:30

    I first saw the photograph of Evelyn Mchale years ago when I was in my early twenties. I was intrigued by it, not so much because of the suicide, but because of the serenity in her face. You could almost say she had a graceful death, if that’s possible. It’s obvious she was an attractive woman. Yet there was something missing in her life, something she felt was not right or perfect. Nothing is perfect, not even nature. Life is so much more complicated than it seems, and yet so simple. A smile, a little attention could have changed what happened here. Life is to short. Live it! As for the photograph it continues to intrigue me, I never forgot it.


  13. Keira
    Jun 30, 2009 @ 18:48:01

    I would just like to thank you for this post.


  14. billarends
    Jul 02, 2009 @ 13:01:42

    I reread this thread once again and gave the anonymous comment more thought. Anonymous wrote:”Beauty doesn’t always mean something is good. Suicide is very sad and tragic, but it is also extraordinary, and something excellent of it’s kind”.I know this may sound harsh but there is still as far as I can see nothing admirable beautiful or excellent about suicide, it is either a wrong (most times) or unavoidable ugliness. We might understand that it was either an act of desperation, or an inevitability, nothing is about it is beautiful. life is beautiful and death as a part of life can be. When life becomes so ugly death seems the only alternative or release then that death is just as ugly as that life. We need to catch those that are about to take that jump and help them fix life, not say how beautiful was their death or darkly poetic or some such nonsense. The neo-Goths that seem to think death and mourning are cool are just disturbed young people that haven’t learned that life includes ugliness. Admiration of death is a borderline mental illness as far as I am concerned. That said Art and beauty are not entirely connected. If there is no association of good with beauty, it is also possible that there is no association of ugly with evil. when we begin debating the primary definition of an idea than we are often rationalising the irrational. Sorry death may not be ugly but suicide is. It may be displayed as art but it is not beauty, as not all art is beautiful or needs to be, to make a point. Again this photo works as art but it is not beautiful, and no poetic rationalization will make it so.


    • Stephen
      Jul 02, 2009 @ 21:56:33

      I’m still disinclined to describe death as beautiful, even under ideal circumstances. (Of the sort I illustrated above when I described my Uncle Bill’s death.)

      I’m still committed to the Christian worldview, according to which death is alien and aberrant; a deviation from God’s original vision for his creation. It’s true that after creation “fell” — after suffering, misery, and grief entered human experience — then death could be regarded as a kind of escape.

      In the Christian view, death is also a point of transition to a better place. But even then, theology holds that God could have taken us to himself without the process of dying: as he evidently did with Enoch and Elijah.

      Death is familiar to us. We have grown accustomed to it. We have even learned to see a certain sort of blessing in it. What I’m saying is, death isn’t the way things were meant to be. Death will always be less than God’s ideal; it will always fall short of God’s perfect will for us. Even if death sometimes brings relief (as in the case of someone dying slowing and painfully), it will always be a blemished thing.

      Life is beautiful. Death is the opposite of life and, therefore, unbeautiful.

      Death is, at best, a necessary evil. (Necessary only because creation is fallen.)


  15. Janine
    Oct 30, 2009 @ 15:30:49

    I think suicide is desperately sad. What strikes me in the photograph is not beauty per se — but the strange contradictions. She has jumped — obviously she was distraught. And yet, the carefully white-gloved hands, the “pose” that almost seems like she’s clutching her pearls, her careful makeup, the stockings that have come loose from the sheer impact of the fall. She has taken so much care. And she was at the end of her rope. From the letter we understand her despair – something that I believe could have been healed with care. People need a way to see past their impasses in life, when they come to despair. It’s not beautiful that she didn’t get it.

    I think about suicide because I have gone through so many changes in my own life, where I seemed to come to a dead end where I didn’t have another goal in front of me, where life hadn’t prepared me for thinking about a route I’d have to take outside of any box or teaching I’d been taught made for a happy life. It’s a continual process and it gets deeper and deeper in the sense that what comes unveils deeper parts of me to confront and transform to go forward.

    Despair is not beautiful. It is tragic. FWIW the Church has always looked on death and suffering as effects of evil in the world; not “natural” to our natural state as created in love.


  16. lauren
    May 21, 2010 @ 10:37:57

    I kind of thought he just meant that she was beautiful. Not the suicide part


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