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How do we deal with dying? Most of us look away. But in the case of the Zagar family, they look closer. A father and son have a contest to take the best pictures of their dying grandpa, and the result is an up-close portrait of death. This piece was produced by Lu Olkowski.

Warning: Some of the images in the slideshow below contain graphic content.

“How do you deal with a man dying in your house? How do you deal with that?” -Jeremiah Zagar

Photo by Jeremiah Zagar

“He was involved in my grandfather's death and I wasn't and so he said “This is how I get involved”...just seeing.” -Jeremiah and Isaiah Zagar

Photo by Jeremiah Zagar

“I was fascinated with him dying. I wanted to know what it looked like.” - Jeremiah Zagar

Photo by Jeremiah Zagar

“The feet look like they were out in the desert -- that they'd been baked and cracked and they're dried, dried, dried out.” - Isaiah Zagar

Photo by Jeremiah Zagar

“I took these photos in color because in black and white you'd never get it. You'd never get how painful this must have been.” -Jeremiah Zagar

Photo by Jeremiah Zagar

“I have these same legs. I can almost feel him, by feeling them.” - Isaiah Zagar

Photo by Jeremiah Zagar

“You can see. The cognition is gone, the mouth is agape. He was buried in his pillow.” - Isaiah Zagar

Photo by Jeremiah Zagar

“A man who prided himself on his health. Look what happened? How does one describe that?” - Isaiah Zagar

Photo by Jeremiah Zagar

“He knew it was over. It was just a matter of time now...He wanted to live forever.” - Isaiah Zagar

Photo by Jeremiah Zagar

“When a person is dying, it is very important that they're surrounded. Surrounded by the light of life. You don't go into the place of oblivion alone.” - Isaiah Zagar

Photo by Jeremiah Zagar

Comments [29]

Sharon from Bronx, NY

Thank you for this story, it brings back memories.
I wonder how long he was in that situation, they should have gotten him some help with the sores, at least. Life's a bitch. You know how you entered this world but you don't know how you are going to leave.
As a 22 year old, I had to look after my great grandmother and I also watched her die at home. Her feet went cold, very, very cold. I covered them with about 4 blankets (this was the height of summer in Jamaica). Then, with slurred speech, she said she was thirsty, (I later learnt that she couldn’t speak properly because the digestive system was the next to shut down, her mouth suddenly felt dry). I gave her some coconut water via a baby spoon.
I felt her lower body, and tried to hold back the tears, ii was like watching a horror movie (like THE FOG, death was just slowly creeping up on granny. I wanted to cry but I couldn't, I was the oldest great grand child. I had to be strong for the other 2 g grandchildren that were there. (You see her daughter, granddaughter and 3 great grandchildren were there in the room with her). I don't remember if I held her hand to the end, but at some point I did.
After death finally reached her upper body, I knew that she would be gone shortly after, I did not take my eyes off granny and I saw the last breath (in my young mind, I was saying, please don't let her suffer). My prayers were answered, she closed her eyes and we all stared at her and I started crying. Thank God it was quick. I am glad I was there for her all those years as a kid and as a young adult. I am in my 50s now and I hope that I will meet the same fate.
Most people and family members don't care about these aspects of life anymore. The world has changed a lot since I last took care of my great grandmother.

Feb. 27 2018 12:56 AM
Reba Joy from Mississippi

To all of you,

I heard this story on my way home from Alabama to Mississippi today. It touched me very deeply.
Thank you for having the vision to tell this story. It really is the story of life, if we like to admit it or not.

My favorite part is how the father taught his son how to usher in death with dignity. My grandmother and grandfather taught me that through letters they wrote to their siblings about the last days of life with their parents in their home.

When the time came, I was surprised I knew how to step up and do just that for my grandmother, my father-in-law, and my father.

I think my sons learned by watching.

Thank you again and keep up the good work. (It keeps me in the garage just to wait for the story to end.)

Reba, Mental Health Consultant/Writer

Feb. 24 2018 06:14 PM
Nichole from Connecticut

What a fabulous story. The grandson received a gift. A gift of taking care of his grandfather. As difficult as it was to endure - he has acquired a sensitivity for how precious life is. And how important family is.

I lost my father to pancreatic cancer when my dad was 70. He was the epitome of health - like Grandpa. And to be struck down so fast. So hard. It was an emotional shock to everyone.

I took care of my father, and, like the son and grandson, I witnessed the death of a man whom I love very much. I didn’t leave my father’s side.

We are a better person to have labored a loved one onto his/her next chapter.

I love what the father said at the end. “When a person is dying they should be surrounded by the light of life.”

How true.
Grandpa had a great life. And a great death.

Feb. 24 2018 04:07 PM
Norm Zamcheck from New York City

I respect the concept behind this sequence - it's a vital issue, learning about the last days of life. However, I found it wildly distasteful and quite offensive to picture a bunch of young people grabbing beers while they photographed this dying man's anus. Seems you might have recalled the ancient concept of respect of the old, respect for the dying. That we leave our bodies behind as broken shards is well known and documented in poetry and science. I found your piece utterly lacking in respect, in the rush to picture a piece of decayed meat.

Feb. 24 2018 02:42 PM

This was an intensely interesting program. Having worked in medical facilities and written about clinical and medical research, the segment on cell life was fascinating. The second segment about alternatives for caring for the elderly brought out the keen need for companionship, whether family or robot. But the segment on the grandfather's dying time grabbed my emotions. You see, I cared for my mother for more than eight years as vascular dementia killed her brain cells. It was the hardest thing I will ever do, and I hated watching her body and brain break down and never get better. The touching wisdom of the elder Zagar that the dying need to be surrounded by softness eased some of the grief I have had since Mom died a few months ago. We were at home, her music favorite playing while I held her hand. Thank you for the glimmer of recognition that I did make her death better.

Feb. 24 2018 11:19 AM

This is a sad and disappointing story to hear that the men did not have the presence of mind to get help the grandfather earned. Medicare covers a lot of nursing visits and personal health aid care. Moreover, any hospice, especially a non-profit service could have provided assistance these men needed. This segment angers me greatly. I also took pictures of my father, and we also watched movies, listened to big band music, and he visited with his dog. My father was bedridden for the last 14 months of his life, and he and my family learned much on how to care for him from personal aides and nurses. Most of all I feel for the grandfather and disappointed that he had to die in such pain.

Apr. 03 2016 07:27 PM
Marilou from New Jersey

Both my parents died in my house 5 months apart. They were 90 and 86. We (siblings and grandchildren) treasured the time we had with them to the end. Many people welcome new life into the world, sometimes in the home, and believe it is an honor to see new life. I will tell you being with someone at the end or their life and holding their hand and being with them is an even greater honor in my opinion.
That person probably was (mine were) an important person(s) in their life and sharing in this important part of their lives is necessary for many.
My family and I are Christians and believe in the after life. We have explained to the younger generations (and there were 5 generations that visited my house for 2 years off and on to visit with them) that Gram and Pop's BODY died and their soul is in heaven with God. That's what the Bible teaches that we make a choice to go to either heaven or hell depending on our choice to believe in Jesus as God's son and our Savior or reject him.
I am looking forward to my death with joy and anticipation to be with my Lord. Many don't have the opportunity to experience death with loved ones as accidents happen and it happens quickly.
I have experienced leukemia and survived (6 years!) with much help from my family and know first hand what that feels like to be loved and cared for by my family.
God bless you for sharing this very important program.

Apr. 03 2016 02:47 PM

I'm disappointed that you didn't include my comment on this story. I believe that somebody needs to say that there are ways to avoid some of the suffering evident here--there is, for example, no excuse for a pressure ulcer to get that bad. There just isn't. And did anybody think to put some lotion on Dad's feet? Please, People, learn more about palliative care and preventive care. I can believe the family just didn't have the knowledge or resources to tend at an early enough stage to prevent the "bedsore" and it wasn't from not caring. It's very difficult but it is doable. And with effort but not extreme effort. I know.

Jul. 06 2014 02:23 PM
Brandon from Tucson

Americans seem to have a problem with death, so much of American culture is about staying young, looking young, aging has turned into a bad thing, we had it in resort communities and all you can eat salad bars, it's sad. I think it's that denial that makes this piece upsetting to some people.

Jul. 04 2014 01:26 PM
Jeroen Meijer

Had a similar experience but translated it in a mosaic

Jun. 29 2014 04:52 PM
Alice from NH

Whatever happened to the Hemlock Society? I am in my 90's and would very much appreciate being able to access an exit of my own choosing. Instead we seem to have politicians fighting over what to do with the useless members of society. Apparently their decision is based on what organization will contribute the most to their campaign. Makes me feel like fodder.

Jun. 28 2014 04:05 PM
denise from albany, OR

Dear Radio Lab journalists
I was surprised by your conclusion on the segment about the aging Japanese population. The journalists both asked the question what is the solution, and neither of them were willing to say the obvious truth, which is to declare to the next generation, “You need to have more children so you will have someone to care for you in your old age! Most journalists write to report the truth and influence people. You combed over the answer, yet were not willing to state it. Why?

Jan. 12 2013 04:24 PM
Frances L from Portland

Wow.....this was an amazing show. I have just gone through the death of my mother aged 94. I am sorry to say I could not be with her, and she died in a care center. Our culture really needs to know how to go through this process with loved ones. I think we don't know how to go through it and leave it to care centers and hospitals to perform the last weeks and months of care for our loved ones. This is a major reason why we are spending 50% of health care dollars spent in a year in the last year of people's lives, in the Amercian battle to stave off death and not have to deal with the dying persons care ourselves.
We need more programs like this to help teach us the value of going through the dying process with loved ones and how to care for them.

Jan. 12 2013 04:16 PM

Just recently started listening to Radiolab. I have been with patients in the throes of death, present when they died, too. This was a special essay. Humans continue to perceive sound and the presence of others long after they appear to do so. Compassionate care giving is so important. This family is to be commended. Hopefully their contribution to the understanding of death will inspire others to be involved. Future challenges to care include economic constraints especially for those who have small families or no children.

Dec. 01 2011 11:29 AM
Bo from Seattle, WA.

OK, I'm on my way to see my Aunt who is dying. After hearing how important it is to surround those who are dying with the light of the living, I know that was meant for me. My Aunt is in late stages of lung cancer and does not have much time left. She is the last of my elders, the only one left who can tell me about my mothers life and hers. Here is an example of how your stories change peoples lives.

Dec. 14 2010 05:31 PM
Jenny from Plano, TX

I had to listen to a radiolab for my AP Biology class and am blown away by it! I thought it was going to be boring but it was so interesting and fresh! I am definetly going to listen to it more now!

Oct. 24 2010 11:16 PM
Margelit Hoffman from Jerusalem, Israel

Did no one make the connection that these fetal corpses are meant to grow for 9 months in the womb and then undergo a change--no connection between 50 divisions in 9 months and 9 months of pregnancy?

Feb. 11 2010 05:51 PM
Bethany from St. Louis

I think anyone who has seen someone they love die, slowly, a little each day, can relate to this story. I found this piece to be very evocative, and incredibly moving. It brought back so many memories of taking care of my dying grandmother. I believe the best thing one can do is simply be there. Care enough to witness your loved one's passing.

Mar. 27 2009 02:31 PM
Jim Norman from Toronto

Congratulations to those responsible for the "Grandpa" segment on your work winning a Gold Medal at the New York Festivals' Radio Broadcasting Awards on June 19, 2008. Having been so greatly moved by your work myself, I hear why it received this highly prized acknowledgement.

Jun. 20 2008 06:29 PM
Candy Barr

Thank you Jeremiah and I for sharing such an intimate portrait of your family. I spent the last week with my mother dying, and it brought back that incredible time.

May. 30 2008 10:23 AM

This piece has really made me think a lot about morbidity and dying (not death). It is the helpless and painful end that seems so frightening about getting old. Death feels welcome compared to that.

Have our last days always been like this or have we begun to have more prolonged endings since we've been living longer in more recent years? This also smacks into more social problems and societal values/laws. Can someone choose not to spend one's final days unable to move around, with bedsores and fecal scalding, and someone else cleaning your body, feeding you, etc. (ie., should someone be allowed to choose to end life earlier?) It seems that no one else would be able to care for you as well as you can care for yourself. Nursing homes I've seen are sad, miserable, awful places...and family caring for the sick elderly can be stressed and overworked. But our elderly are living history and a way for us to touch our past, if only we talk to them. They are people, our ancestors and it is not right to "throw them away"...yet, do they want to live still? Perhaps some do and some don't and others are unable to communicate their desires.

Is there a purpose for aging and a decrepit body?

I wonder if I'd feel comforted if I was on my deathbed and my children and grandchildren were taking photos of me as part of a contest. I'm not sure if that would feel very loving and caring and respectful to me.

Dec. 06 2007 01:23 PM
Stephanie from MI

I heard the story this evening on 91.7 in Detroit. Wow, I was just blown away. The father was wise to encourage his son to spend time with his grandfather. I'm sure the son is grateful for the experience.

Nov. 25 2007 10:31 PM
Andrew from W-field, NJ

Leo, he wasn't dead but dying. They were respectful and the act of photography, you'll learn if you listen to the program, brought the family closer and allowed the grandfather to remain surrounded by life until his final moments with us.

Sep. 25 2007 09:07 AM
Mark from NJ

Refreshingly realistic, having dealt with the death of both of my parents at home I think everyone should see death for what it is.

Sep. 05 2007 03:46 PM
Jay from Merida, MX

The respect was reflected in the story. You can not 'appreciate' their story without both their words and the photos.

Aug. 30 2007 07:13 PM
Leo from Royal Oak, Mi

Maybe you've never heard the expression: "Show some respect for the dead."

Jun. 28 2007 12:27 AM
Radio Lab


You shouldn't need anything special to view the slideshow, but you do need to have javascript enabled in yor web browser. nnd you'll also want to allow pop-ups from .

-Radio Lab

Jun. 20 2007 01:43 PM
Leslie from Kansas City

Umm you don't have to post this, but, I can't get the slideshow to work? Do I need a certain program or to subscribe?

Jun. 18 2007 09:20 PM
Gerald Wilson

Did anyone else find this piece absolutely devastating? right between the eyes

Jun. 17 2007 08:47 PM

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