May 12, 2016 6:00 AM EDT

In a city with close to 22 million people, where concrete has taken over, how do you handle your dead? It’s that question that drove photographer Sebastien van Malleghen to Mexico City earlier this year.

“Around 450 people die every single day in Mexico City,” says the Belgian photographer best known for his in-depth forays into the penitentiary and law enforcement worlds. “The cemeteries are just enormous, and I wanted to show what happens between the moment we die and the moment our bodies are buried in a megalopolis like Mexico City.”

The result is a series of raw and unflinching images that show not just death but also life—the life of the people who work in the shadow, preparing bodies for their final repose. “Their job is to clean the corpses, fix the muscles, remove the fat, erase all of these stigmas and then to apply make-up and dress them up,” says van Malleghen. “It’s very mechanic. [After a while] the corpses become simple objects to them.”

Some of his images are hard to look at, and that’s the point, says the photographer, who admits he wouldn’t have been able to get the same level of access back in his native Belgium. He believes that the tendency to become numb to fictional death on TV and in movies while turning away from real death—because “when you show what happens in real life, people think it’s too harsh, too raw”—is worth combating, even if it’s uncomfortable.

And Mexico is an appropriate place to do so. There, in his experience, death isn’t seen as the end. “It’s part of life, and the families’ strength in the face of death is incredible,” he says. “They believe that in order to surmount your pain, you have to feel it.”

Sebastien Van Malleghem is a freelance photographer based in Belgium.

Olivier Laurent is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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