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Mourners in the Snow

The last week’s online slide shows have been full of energetic images from the primary campaigns, striking images from Mardi Gras and the Brazilian Carnival, heartrending images of violence from around the world, and all too familiar images of ordinary people digging out from the latest snowstorm. None of these touched me quite like this one:

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You are looking at a procession of mourners from a village in Kashmir. They are carrying the body of a man killed by an avalanche. Heavy snows have killed a number of villagers and driven hundreds from their homes. These are Muslim mourners living in that portion of Kashmir controlled by India, but the political geography seems irrelevant. The snow is no respecter of prejudices, while the thick white cover seems to nullify all boundaries.

The snow also is slowly burying the houses while making walking very difficult. The mourners are strung along the one narrow path the winds through the barren scene. Wrapped up against the cold, they seem to share a deep separateness as if each were lost in thought. The one bulge in the line comes in the middle, where you can see that several mourners are carrying the dark coffin. The yellow buildings in the background promise the warmth and comforts of village life, but death sets the tone for this winter day.

The poignancy of the image may come also from its resemblance to another winter’s scene:

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This is a copy of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s painting, “Hunters in the Snow.” Completed in 1565, this masterpiece also features a somber procession of villagers within a drear winter landscape. The contrast between the vitality of the village and those in the procession is stronger than in the photograph, but tired hunters and their slow-moving dogs evoke a shared fatality where all species have to struggle against the inertia of nature to survive. They are lucky: even if the hunt was in vain, the are returning to a village that is doing well. Their little band will be warmed and fed as it is absorbed back into the community to rest and revive for another day.

There are other differences as well, but the two images share a vision of how the human community exists precariously within nature’s cold, impersonal, relentless mortality. The continuity of painting and photograph suggests something else as well. If the photo seems to look backwards, as if the Kashmiri villagers were still walking through a premodern tableau, the painting reminds us that the passage of time offers no escape from the human condition. In fact, one can image the photograph as a scene from a century to come, when humans regularly walk slowly through barren landscapes to bury their dead.

But that is getting ahead of the story. It’s been a hard winter for many people this year, and Christians are in the season of Lent, a dark, cold time defined by failure and loss. I find it fitting that a profoundly Lenten image is one of Muslim mourners, and strangely reassuring that an image of winter is one not of vexing inconvenience but rather of stillness and community.

Photograph by Farooq Khan/European Pressphoto Agency.

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Mourners in the Snow

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