I have seen them in Berlin and in Paris, in every room of the nursing homes: the dressers with objects recalling the past. Photographs of deceased spouses, of children, siblings, and deceased parents, and of their own youth. Often there are religious objects as well: statues of the Virgin Mary, crosses, or menorahs… Do these objects serve as important keepsakes and as consolation for people who know they are going to die soon?
When I began to photograph in nursing homes I asked myself, what does one take along on the final journey? And I remembered the question we used to put to ourselves as children: What three objects would you bring to a deserted island?
The things that accompany us in life, that we at times desire because of their beauty, or that give us the impression they could make us happy, all of these become less valuable in a nursing home. Only a very few objects appear important here. One woman showed me a ring and a teddy bear and said: “The first and the final gift from my husband.” Another woman confided to me: “Tooth paste is very, very important! Vitamin C, as well. But you certainly know that already.”
A strange idea gradually came to me while photographing: Perhaps the residents of the nursing home were not really aware that they would die in the near future. At least none of them seemed to make any preparations. Or did these take place in secret, each alone with their fears and hopes? Or did they believe in a God who in death would take them up in boundless love? Did they trust in the infinite wealth of the space that connects us all?
I asked a social worker who accompanied me in one of the nursing homes and whom I had gotten to know better whether the issue of death was ever discussed. My question took him by surprise. No, he said, people don’t talk about death here. He didn’t even know if he could do it himself.