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Monday, September 6, 2010

Painting with my Zombie Finger and Thoughts of the Living Dead

When I was painting in preparation for the gallery show in July, I was in pain. I had smashed my finger in a ladder, and it was swollen with the under-nail blackened with blood. As I painted, I thought of how much my finger resembled a zombie’s finger. Gradually painting, with each stroke of the brush a kind of agony, I remembered zombies used to be slow.

My husband Fred and I often talked about this phenomenon. We had grown up with films like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Zombies would stumble and walk slowly, groaning as they came. Even an out-of-shape store clerk like Shaun, from Shaun of the Dead, could outrun a zombie. The terror aspect of zombies resided in their unstoppable nature. Zombies did not sleep, they did not stop, and they were everywhere. These are the type of zombies depicted in the 2006 book World War Z by Max Brooks. This book was a follow-up to the very popular Zombie Survival Guide of 2003.

The Zombie Survival Guide itself addressed a pop-culture meme of its time. In 1999 The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht was published. In the series of books that followed the authors explained how to save one’s self in extreme situations such as crocodile-infested waters or quicksand. In bars and at parties throughout America we took it a step further and asked all of our friends what their zombie survival plan was. In my age demographic, and I am 38 mind you, I have never met a person who did not have a zombie survival plan when asked to provide one.

Whilst this zeitgeist hobbled along, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland were creating 28 Days Later, released in 2002. In 28 Days Later, zombies ran. Purists will say the zombies in 28 Days Later are only humans infected with a virus, but it opened the floodgates. From the Dawn of the Dead remake of 2004 to Zombieland of 2009, zombies now would sprint toward their victims, tearing them to shreds in moments.

We are rapidly approaching the ten-year anniversary of fast zombies, and I think this change in zombie behavior in media is a reflection of the culture of our times. This is only the most recent example of our continuing denial of the image of death within our culture. We can deal with a frantic moving creature trying desperately to live, but many cannot accept the vision of the slow decent towards death.

When I visited Fred’s mother and father for the first time in the spring of 1993, I loved their charming home and was surprised to see a vestige of an older time within their walls. The Holliday house had a formal parlor. The parlor was furnished with imitation Chippendale pieces and matching lamps in a Victorian style. The space was usually dark and serene, a place apart from the busyness of the kitchen and other rooms. Once upon a time in America, everyone who had a decent-sized home would have had a formal parlor. This space had the best furnishings and art, and it was the room in which the recently deceased would be laid out for presentation before funeral. After the Civil War, families began giving over burying responsibilities to an outside business called a funeral parlor. With this change in the way Americans dealt with the transaction of death, formal parlors were replaced with living rooms, and Americans began to distance themselves from the realities of death.

Another vestige of this time that is rarely seen today is postmortem photography. I vividly remember going through a tin of old photographs as a child. I remember holding up a picture of a “sleeping” baby and asking my mother who the child was. Even at six years of age, I can remember feeling something was not quite right within the image. My mother paused and then told me it was the dead sibling of my father. The child had not lived long enough for a picture of it while living so they had a portrait taken after the child had died. I remember holding onto that picture for what seemed like an eternity. Although I placed it back in the tin 32 years ago, I can still see that baby in my mind.

Years later when Fred met my family, he held my hand as he patiently looked through years of family scrapbooks and photograph albums. After viewing a few albums, he was surprised and a little disgusted to see we took pictures of the dead. In our albums he saw my aunts and uncles and distant cousins all arrayed with their funeral finery. In 2001, one year before the fast zombie would make its debut in the world of film, I stood beside my husband as I took a picture of my dead father in his casket. Fred whispered in my ear, “Do not take a picture of me in my casket after I die.”  I respected Fred's wishes and when my Fred died, I did not take his picture. I did not have to. That image is seared within my mind.  But I also respect the wishes of all those families who take pictures of the love ones who have died.  Every now and then I see them in my Facebook and mourn with these families.

I recently read Atul Gawande’s piece in The New Yorker, Letting Go: What should medicine do when it can’t save your life. I was struck once again with the extreme discomfort most doctors have for discussions about end of life care with their patients. In our cancer journey, Fred and I often had to deal with the inability of Fred’s doctors to talk about the reality of palliative care and hospice as an option. In the emotional roller-coaster of potential treatment and curative care, we were left without a very good understanding of the benefits of a palliative course. After Fred was no longer eating or drinking and was in extreme pain, this direction was suggested, and Fred signed the appropriate paperwork. When we transported Fred to the hospice facility, both the EMT transport team and myself thought he might only have days left to live.

Due to the excellent care of the hospice team, Fred rallied and he lived for almost another month. The curative care without a palliative component that Fred had been receiving at the rehab facility was killing him faster. I was therefore not surprised when I saw an Aug 19, 2010, article from The New England Journal of Medicine stating, “Among patients with metastatic non–small-cell lung cancer, early palliative care led to significant improvements in both quality of life and mood. As compared with patients receiving standard care, patients receiving early palliative care had less aggressive care at the end of life but longer survival.”

So why do people resist the concept of hospice and palliative care when it has shown such ability provide a better quality of life, and in so doing, perhaps even extend life? Why do all of those friends of mine have a well thought-out zombie survival plan but have never considered filling out an advance directive? Why do we resist the reality of death as a part of life?

I think we were cheated out of the few accessible images of death within our culture when zombies became fast. Death is rarely fast in the world of cancer. It can take years or weeks or days to die. I have talked to enough spouses and caregivers at this point to know the experience of death is often the same. In Dr. Gawande’s article, Rich, the husband of Sara Monopoli, described her final hours. Rich recalled, “There was this awful groaning.” There is no prettifying death. “Whether it was with inhaling or exhaling, I don’t remember, but it was horrible, horrible, horrible to listen to.”

I know exactly how horrible those groaning breaths sound. I heard Fred make them for hours as he tried to breathe at the end of his life. But I heard them before in a pop culture world that tried to make sense of the senseless.


  1. I've seen the fast death. Several years ago, to purge some demons, I fictionalized it in an account you can see at

    Most deaths are slow, inexorable, and inevitable. Some are too fast, too early, and just wrong wrong wrong.

  2. Another nice post, Regina. I appreciate how you weave a tale and make connections that those of us with somewhat less creative minds might not make.

    I thought I'd pass on a link to the organization, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a network of professional photographers who volunteer their time to take pictures of families who are expecting or have experienced the death of an infant.

  3. Thank you so much Dennis and Amy for posting comments on this. Dennis your imagery is very powerful. Amy, I came so close to referencing that service within this post, but I didn't remember the site name. I had heard a very powerful conversation about that program on NPR months ago. Thank you so much for including it the comment section of this post.

  4. Thanks for posting this . This is really good. Please visit us at

  5. Hi Reginna,

    As usualy so thoughtful and emotional.
    Your art and writing are so important to me, as I feel that the personal experienes and the powerful art are such strong advocacy tools.

    And thanks for agreeing to write about our book. Gefen Lamdan (the illustrator) and me will love to hear your thoughts!

    Also, feel free to use any of her illustrations that appear on my blog.



  6. Excellent! You are so right about the ways in which we turn away from pain and death and end-of-life issues in general....I often stumble and don't know how to speak about the surviving....I think trying is best than not at all.

  7. This is to see such good work aftr long time...
    i hope u love works.
    oil painting on canvas

  8. Another nice post, Regina. I appreciate how you weave a tale and make connections that those of us with somewhat less creative minds might not make.