Powerful Portraits of Individuals Before and Directly After Their Death


Name: Jan Andersen.
Age: 27
Born: 21st of February 1978
Died: 14th June 2005, at Leuchtfeuer Hospice, Hamburg

Jan Andersen was 19 when he discovered that he was HIV-positive. On his 27th birthday he was told that he didn’t have much time left: cancer, a rare form, triggered by the HIV-infection. He did not complain. He put up a short, fierce fight – then he seemed to accept his destiny. His friends helped him to personalize his room in the hospice. He wanted Iris, his nurse, to tell him precisely what would happen when he died. When the woman in the room next to him died, he went to have a look at her. Seeing her allayed his fears. He said he wasn’t afraid of death. 

“You’re still here?”, he said to his mother, puzzled, the night he died. “You’re not that well,” she replied. “I thought I’d better stay.”

In the final stages, the slightest physical contact had caused him pain. Now he wants her to hold him in her arms, until the very end. “I’m glad that you stayed.”


Name: Elmira Sang Bastian
Age: 17 months
Born: 18th October 2002
Died: 23rd March 2004, at her parent’s home

The tumor was probably already present when Elmira was born. Now it takes up almost the entire brain. “We cannot save your daughter”, the doctor told Elmira’s mother. Elmira has a twin sister. She is healthy. Their mother, Fatemeh Hakami, refuses to give up hope: how can God have blessed her with two children, only to take one of them away from her now? Surely God is the only one who decides whether we still breathe or not?

One sunny day, Elmira stops breathing. “At least she lived”, says her mother. She takes a small white dress from the cupboard, Elmira’s shroud. Her parents then read the Ya Sin – the 36th chapter of the Koran which describes the resurrection of the dead.

Photographer Walter Schels was terrified of death, so much so he refused to see his mother after she passed away. Upon entering his 70s, Schels finally decided to overcome his fear through a bold, bizarre project – photographing individuals before and directly after their death. The black and white portraits are a clinical confrontation with the the unknown, the proximity of the lens to subject unflinching and slightly macabre. Images are paired with startlingly frank accounts of the deceased right before their passing, each person dealing with the inevitable in their own way.

Schels and his partner Beat Lakotta began approaching potential individuals at hospices in Berlin and Hamburg, surprised to find few people said no. The pair were on constant alert, at times running out in the middle of the night to shoot before the undertaker would come. Though emotionally draining, Schels recognized that the series became an important epitaph to people before they actually died. With family and friends unable to cope with the looming truth, terminally ill patients often feel completely isolated.

“It’s so good you’re doing this”, Schels quoted a dying man to The Guardian, “No one else is listening to me, no one wants to hear or know what it’s really like.”

Schels is no longer terrified of death and now sees avoidance of the issue as a serious problem in contemporary society, people unable to be truly present for loved ones when they need them most. Life Before Death is an attempt to confront our worst fears and perhaps, to see those nearing the end in a more human light. When facing death, we all stop pretending.

“Everything that’s not real is stripped away,” he told The Guardian, “You’re the most real you’ll ever be, more than you’ve ever been before.”


Name: Klara Behrens
Age: 83
Born: 2nd December 1920
Died: 3rd March 2004, at Sinus-Hospice, Hamburg

Klara Behrens can tell that she hasn’t got much longer. “Sometimes, I do still hope that I’ll get better,” she says. “But then when I’m feeling really nauseous, I don’t want to carry on living. And I’d only just bought myself a new fridge-freezer! If I’d only known…”

It is the last day of February, the sun is shining, the first bluebells are flowering in the courtyard. “What I’d really like to do is to go outside, down to the River Elbe. To sit down on the stony bank and put my feet in the water. That’s what we used to do when we were children, when we went to gather wood down by the river. If I had my life over again, I’d do everything differently. I wouldn’t lug any wood around. But I wonder if it’s possible to have a second chance at life? I don’t think so. After all, you only believe what you see. And you can only see what is there. I’m not afraid of death. I’ll just be one of the million, billion grains of sand in the desert. The only thing that frightens me is the process of dying. You just don’t know what actually happens.”


Name: Wolfgang Kotzahn
Age: 57
Born: 19th January 1947
Died: 4th February 2004, at Leuchtfeuer Hospice, Hamburg

There are colorful tulips brightening up the night table. The nurse has prepared a tray with champagne glasses and a cake. It’s Wolfgang Kotzahn’s birthday today. “I’ll be 57 today. I never thought of myself growing old, but nor did I ever think I’d die when I was still so young. But death strikes at any age.”

Six months ago the reclusive accountant had been stunned by the diagnosis: bronchial carcinoma, inoperable. “It came as a real shock. I had never contemplated death at all, only life,” says Herr Kotzahn. “I’m surprised that I have come to terms with it fairly easily. Now I’m lying here waiting to die. But each day that I have I savor, experiencing life to the full. I never paid any attention to clouds before. Now I see everything from a totally different perspective: every cloud outside my window, every flower in the vase. Suddenly, everything matters.”


Name: Maria Hai-Anh Tuyet Cao
Age: 52
Born: 26th August 1951
Died: 15th February 2004, at Leuchtfeuer Hospice, Hamburg

Maria Hai-Anh Tuyet Cao’s experience of dying would doubtless have been very different, had she not absorbed the teachings of the Supreme Mistress Ching Hai. The Mistress says: “All that is beyond this world is better than our world. It is better than anything we can or cannot imagine.”

Frau Cao wears the portrait of the Mistress round her neck. Under her guidance, she has already visited the afterlife in meditation. Her call to the next world cannot be far off: her pulmonary alveoli are failing. Yet she appears serene and cheerful. “Death is nothing”, says Frau Cao. “I embrace death. It is not eternal. Afterwards, when we meet God, we become beautiful. We are only called back to earth if we are still attached to another human being in the final seconds.” Hai-Anh Cao prepares for this moment every day. She wants to achieve a sense of total detachment at the moment of death.


Name: Heiner Schmitz
Age: 52
Born: 26th November 1951
Died: 14th December 2003, at Leuchtfeuer Hospice, Hamburg

Heiner Schmitz saw the affected area on the MRI scan of his brain. He realized immediately that he didn’t have much time left. Schmitz is a fast talker, highly articulate, quick-witted, but not without depth. He works in advertising. Heiner’s friends don’t want him to be sad. They try to take his mind off things. At the hospice, they watch football with him just like they used to do. Beers, cigarettes, a bit of a party in the room. The girls from the agency bring him flowers. Many of them come in twos, because they don’t want to be alone with him. What do you talk about with someone who’s been sentenced to death? Some of them even say ‘get well soon’ as they’re leaving. ‘Hope you’re soon back on track, mate!’

“No one asks me how I feel”, says Heiner Schmitz. “Because they’re all shit scared. I find it really upsetting the way they desperately avoid the subject, talking about all sorts of other things. Don’t they get it? I’m going to die! That’s all I think about, every second when I’m on my own.”


Name: Waltraud Bening
Age: 80
Born: 29th May 1922
Died: 26th January 2003, at Ricam Hospice, Berlin

When her time does come, Waltraud Bening seems to have a presentiment that this is the moment: she has to call her husband to come to her bedside immediately, otherwise it will be too late. She had been putting off this encounter till the very last minute. She would rather have died at home, but her husband didn’t feel he could cope with it. She was hurt. She felt that there was no need for him to come to the hospice at all. “He was always such a tyrant,” says Frau Bening, “I never could stand up to him.” She gets upset just thinking about it.

Frau Bening spends three weeks sitting up in the bed, on four down-filled quilts, just like the Princess and the Pea. She drinks champagne miniatures from her feeding cup, and is happy to be entertained by her children and banter with her carers. Then, one day she becomes restless and tearful. “I want my husband to come,” she says. He is sitting by her bedside soon after. After their final conversation, the contents of which remain a mystery, Frau Bening stops drinking; she dies the following day without any apparent distress.


Name: Michael Föge
Age: 50
Born: 15th June 1952
Died: 12th February 2003, at Ricam Hospice, Berlin

Michael Föge, tall, athletic and eloquent, was appointed as Berlin’s first Commissioner of Cyclists. He was happy. A hundred guests attended his fiftieth birthday celebration. Soon after, he couldn’t remember his words when he was making a speech. The doctors discovered a brain tumor. Within a matter of months the tumor had destroyed his speech centre, paralyzed his right arm and the right side of his face. In the hospice, day by day Föge is becoming more sleepy. One day he won’t wake up.

Whilst Michael Föge retained the power of speech, he never talked about his feelings or his inner life. Now he is no longer able to do so. “I wonder what is going on inside his head,” his wife asks herself.


Name: Elly Genthe
Age: 83
Born: 4th August 1919
Died: 11th January 2003, at Ricam Hospice, Berlin

Throughout her life Elly Genthe has been a tough, resilient woman. She has always managed on her own. Often she has said she would rather die than not be able to take care of herself. That time has now come and she remains undaunted. Full of praise for the hospice and the quality of the care she is receiving, she hopes death will come quickly.

A few days later she senses her strength is ebbing away. Suddenly she clutches her granddaughter’s hand: “Don’t go! I’m suffocating!” She begs the nurses: “Please, breathe for me!” Elly Genthe needs morphine – a drug secreted by the kidneys – but because her kidneys have been consumed by cancer, her morphine levels fluctuate: sometimes she sleeps all day; and there are moments when she sees little men crawling out of the flower pots – they’ve come to kill her. “Get me out of here”, she whispers as soon as anyone holds her hand. “My heart will stop beating if I stay here. This is an emergency! I don’t want to die!”


Name: Michael Lauermann
Age: 56
Born: 19th August 1946
Died: 14th January 2003, at Ricam Hospice, Berlin

Michael Lauermann was a manager. A workaholic. One day he just keeled over. At the hospital they said: “Brain tumour, inoperable.” That was six weeks ago.

Lauermann doesn’t want to talk about death, he’d rather talk about his life. How he managed to escape the narrow confines of his native Swabia and go to Paris. Studies at the Sorbonne. Baudelaire, street riots, revolution, women. “I really loved life,” says Lauermann. “Now it’s over. I’m not afraid of what’s coming.” There is no one by his side, that’s his choice. That’s not the way his life was. But he has no regrets. He even derives a certain enjoyment from this advanced stage of the illness. Free and easy, a kind of weightlessness. He feels as if his body were fading away. He is not in pain. “I will soon die”, Lauermann says.

Three days later there is a candle burning outside the door of his room. It indicates he has passed away.

All images © Walter Schels

  • Glenn Davey

    Her word really affected you. Deep down, you agree.

  • Glenn Davey

    Yeah, life is supposed to be great and all, but it comes with suffering that childhood didn’t prepare me for. If I get a terminal diagnosis, Heroin, here I come. I’m going to do ALL the drugs.

  • The Prague Post lecturing us about Nihilism and what you believe to a reality. Priceless. Sorta like the Russian absorption of Crimea. Priceless!

  • sherene

    and calling someone you’ve never met a coward + sadistic narcissist and insulting their mama is any better? an eye for an eye and the whole world is blind.

  • sherene

    hint: calling someone a Dick isn’t spreading positive energy either…

  • fuzzmello

    Yes. Yes it is.

  • ex-hater

    …I do stand corrected. I was angry myself, but you’re right!

  • ex-hater

    …hmm.. or… when one has good reasons to think someone is behaving like a dick, perhaps sometimes it CAN be a good thing to call them a dick? …or perhaps better yet, to call their behaviour dickish?

  • Debdini

    As a hospice nurse, I have found that, as a general rule, the younger you are, the harder it is to accept your impending death. Also, people are afraid of the ‘not knowing’ about the process and what comes afterwards. That is why it is really good to be involved with hospice. A good hospice will help you address your body, soul, and spirit as you journey the path towards your physical death.

  • These are some of the most heartwarming before and after shots

  • AmusedAmused

    Your “philosophy”, such as it is, is based on the assumption that death is unnatural, inherently harmful to humanity and even obscene. It is a commonplace view in the Western world today; far from being rebellious, unique or edgy, your blathering is merely an extension of this cultural norm that we abhor the idea of death so much, we don’t even call it by name in polite conversation. This view us profoundly immature. I have no doubt this nonsense passes for deep thought in the fashionably dim bowels of your local Starbucks, but all it tells me is that you are incapable of coping with your own mortality, and so you lash out at your parents and random strangers with children. I won’t speculate, as others have done, whether this makes you mentally ill, but medicalized BS aside, you’ve got issues. There is a hypocrisy here too. Sure, people who have kids do so for selfish reasons. But, see, people who choose NOT to have kids also do so for selfish reasons, they are just different kinds of selfish reasons. I can respect it if someone says, “I don’t want to have kids because I don’t want to gain 50 lbs; because I won’t enjoy being a mother, because it looks like it’s more trouble than it’s worth for me; because I just don’t have the inclination.” But when you try to rationalize your selfish choice by characterizing it as some benevolent act of self-sacrifice for the comfort and happiness of your hypothetical non-existent children, whom you want to spare the agony of death, you are being a hypocrite and you insult my intelligence. Put your big girl panties on, and deal with your personal choices without insinuating that people who have children are idiots or monsters. There are, at any rate, worse forms of monstrosity than selfishly reproducing, and some of them are in display in your comment.

  • add

    Dumb f*cking troll. Only a pussy signs in as ‘guest’.
    Now i have to use ur ip address to hunt u down.

  • Sam

    Cat I wonder if you feel such “Empathy” with all the tragedies of the world, other than not breeding what are you doing to change the suffering

  • Parkinson Sniper

    Life is something like, “if you dont try to play, you can never win”. If dont ever live, youn cannot die. But if you dont live, you will not get the joy of life. So it’s a neutral position. You +1 with life and -1 with death. You end up with zero, but you enjoy the joy of +1 part for years (If we can call it a joy). By the way, I agree with you about the “no children” part!

  • Parkinson Sniper

    One more thing to say on my side…my dilemma is; why we cannot choose where and how we were born!? It is not fair. Many have a really gard life to live and some have a pretty easier one.

  • Christina Kocos

    Why don’t you mind you’re own business instead of telling someone you know nothing about to kill themselves. People like you are the problem in this world.

  • Jeff Woodward

    Death is a curious thing. It is patient, calm, calculating, ever around the corner waiting. For you? Me? That man you saw at the market today? Who knows. Death is a mystery, something so profound yet made of the simplicity of fear and nightmares themselves. We may fear death, fighting every moment and odd end to live as long as possible, being careful and hoping each day won’t be our last. Or we can accept the inevitability of death. One doesn’t need to necessarily embrace death, but rather don’t let it be a burden. Prepare the will or whatever is necessary, but why not live your life and not worry about when “your time comes.” Just live, but don’t live in fear. I would think that living in fear is far worse than death.

  • Chris Brennan

    What a joy it must be to know you. You seem as if you would be so much fun to be around.

  • guest

    So just a question… obviously, if one is not born or live, then they could not die… however, did they ever exist ?

  • Katy No

    Death is highly overrated. It is nothing further then the end of a cycle. Trees die. Flowers die. Fish and animals die. Not to have children because they too will die is like wishing this planet was rather just barren and humanity and all other life forms extinct. Anyone feeling that way is beyond depressed. I am depressed and can’t get myself to think that way. I have empathy for anyone with such terror in their mind when they think of death. It’s not really all that scary, unless you spend your living years doing little but waiting for, and thinking about, the last one.

  • Eye Light

    “Life is not the opposite of death. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal”

  • Lisa Derry

    Pull your head in. Companion Cube was trying to be kind not condesending.

  • Dodge Charger Srtb

    Jesus Christ you need help you pathetic piece of shit.

  • Serg Jara


  • Brian Berneker

    Just as others in this discussion might disagree with you, so might your as-yet-unconceived child who may feel that life is worth the consequence of death. Quantum physics proves that all is merely potential, so by not having children, you are only denying them life and guaranteeing a de-facto death.

    If you disagree, consider the living cells you flush from your body every month unfertilized, as well as the sperm from a would-be father that also dies en masse. It’s not death you are preventing, but the full development of nascent life, and the (arguably challenging) obligation of parenting.

    As another speculation, would you choose abortion if you found out you were pregnant? The child would already be living inside you. I’m not trying to invoke a Roe v. Wade argument here, (or even a Monty Python sketch) except to say there is life potential being discarded every day.

    That said, the decision to procreate is entirely your own, and many women decide against it for shallower reasons than yours (the stretching of their vagina for example). I just wanted to offer a different point of view to show your argument isn’t waterproof.

    Who knows, your kid might even like the new formulation of the Yucca and Plantain shampoo!

  • Suzanne Didier

    What an interesting view on death!

  • Suzanne Didier

    Obviously these comments aren’t screened. Blessings healing that bruised, battered heart of yours.

  • Suzanne Didier

    I was so looking forward to reading the comments on this beautiful, moving article. I read 3 then quit. What a disappointment.

  • To Guest … Wow, that’s an extremely cruel message. I notice you don’t identify yourself. I imagine you must be a very isolated person considering the way you relate to people without the slightest hint of empathy.

  • Laurie Jeanne Jackson

    Life is both a gift and a curse. I didn’t have any kids either because I too had kind of hard time making my way in life because others seemed to put too many obstacles out there that I couldn’t get around–mostly financial and social and I didn’t want to put someone I loved more than anything through that, especially since the world seems to be falling apart. Death is life and we can’t have one without the other. The danger is LOVE, daring to love is what causes all this pain and suffering, yet it is worth it to love other living beings. Without those we love we are NOTHING.

  • Anonymous asshole: Go fuck yourself and fuck you and your family!
    You are the one who should be remove itself!

  • Evelyn Case


  • Jamtse

    What wonderful photos. Our culture has so strangely barricaded itself from death, trying to pretend it doesn’t exist. What a horrible state of affairs. Facing and embracing the reality of death makes life, and post-death, far richer for all. Thanks for this story and photos.

  • espia8321

    easy.. do not encourage suicide… let her express herself

    Planet Earth is a very painful “place” (or program, or video game, or programmatic chip). Whatever Planet Earth is, it is painful, and she is right on that.

  • jean harlow

    they are clearly at peace, and so very far away…

  • Jism Woten

    Jesus, chill the fuck out. It’s an age old existential dilemma. If you love life so much, keep an eye on your rage levels before you have a stroke.

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