Her eyes are closed, her red, painted lips curve slightly downwards, and a flicker of worry rests in the crease between her eyebrows. Rosie Inez Miller – born: unknown; died: October 2003, Harlem, New York – lies awaiting burial in all her finery. Pink, puffy layers of satin and chiffon encase her body, while her hands, covered in white lace gloves, sit quietly upon her body; an elaborate bow on the hat finishes the outfit with a flourish.
Rosie is one of the 31 people, captured by Elizabeth Heyert in her year-long study, to pass through Isaiah Owens’ funeral parlour in Harlem, characterised by its soothing motif: Where Beauty Softens Your Grief. The book is very simple. Each page has a full portrait – exquisitely detailed, immaculately lit, high-colour – of a deceased member of Harlem’s black community. The pictures are taken after the last goodbyes, and just before the person “goes to the party”. They float solidly, calmly and in full party gear on a deep, black background. All that accompanies them is their name, date and place of birth (if known) and of death.
Their story is over, and from such brief information we are inspired to imagine some of the journey. It is partly this narrative that concerns Heyert. Many of her unknown subjects come from the Carolinas, lived through the civil rights movement, and died in Harlem just before Starbucks got in. It is not only the end of each individual’s life, but, as Heyert sees it, the end of an era in American social history.
Turning the glossy pages of the book, the figures look at first like waxworks, or models in a Duane Hanson installation: there is a Six Feet Under frankness and kitsch present here. They look strange, lying in white suits, or lacy dresses, buttoned right up to the neck – most smiling, beatifically. The youthful colours and frills are at odds with death, but affect to make each person look their best and proud, and this is touching. French Perry, born 1924, North Carolina, holds the American flag, and Heyert comments later that he would have been in the segregated army. One young man is only 22 and has his white tracksuit pockets stuffed with dollars.
It is altogether a remarkable project, if not for the faint-hearted. There is something inherently queasy-making in staring for too long at dead people, especially when so carefully dressed for their eternal shindig in the sky.