10 things we’ve learned from the Death Box

10things

Thank you, Reader, for dipping into our Death Box blog over the last 10 months. As you know, we’re closing the lid on the Box at the end of October – timely, wouldn’t you say, what with Halloween an’ all?

But before we do, we wanted to share with you 10 things we’ve learned during the project.  Actually we’ve learned way more than 10 things, but as we’ve blogged for 10 months and we’re in the 10th month of 2016, we decided, well, to keep to 10 things.

So, we’ve learned:

  1. That to reflect on death is incredibly life-affirming.
  2. That we don’t need to reflect on our own death or of those close to us if we don’t want to – the world is full of artists who have already done that in their poems and novels and TED talks and podcasts and paintings. Once we started looking, it was hard not to savour the huge number of ways that artists across the ages have treated the subject.
  3. The power of 2 – twice the imagination, twice the number of skills, twice the number of hours in the day.
  4. That we can now talk (more or less) coherently to the press, we can blog, we can use Facebook.  (However we still haven’t learned how to Tweet.)
  5. How to spell Confucius (as in “We have two lives, and the second begins when we realise we only have one”).
  6. There are amazing people and organisations trying really hard to get us to think a little bit more about death sooner rather than later.  See below for some of the ones we’ve come across.
  7. To design a newspaper and exhibition to a really high spec.
  8. Thérèse takes sugar in her coffee, Lucy doesn’t.
  9. How to do the superhero pose before a press interview and any other major public event (thank you, Sara!).
  10. To “dandle” means “to move (a baby, child, etc.) lightly up and down, as on one’s knee or in one’s arms” (from Michael Donaghy’s beautiful poem ‘Annie’ featured in last week’s post).

We started this blog as a practical way to share items from our Death Box with you. But it became something more – a space in which we reflected on how the Death Box, its contents, the workshops and the creation of our exhibition were affecting us. We really hope that you found something in the blog that resonated with you.

So, one last dip into the Death Box and, on this almost All Hallows evening, we’d like to teleport you over to Mexico. There, the Day of the Dead Festival is just about to begin.  It’s an annual event where families come together to remember their dead and its origins can be traced back at least 3,000 years. There’s a very beautiful 5 minute film about it on the British Museum’s website here – http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/day_of_the_dead.aspx

Until the next project…

Lucy & Therese

Support, information and advice

Death Café

www.deathcafe.com

National Council for Palliative Care

www.ncpc.org.uk/northern-ireland

Cruse Bereavement Care NI

www.cruse.org.uk/northern-ireland

Marie Curie Cancer Care

www.mariecurie.org.uk

Macmillian Cancer Support

www.macmillan.org.uk

Lighthouse Charity

www.lighthousecharity.com

Dying Matters

www.dyingmatters.org/overview/need-support

Final Fling

www.finalfling.com

Living Well, Dying Well

www.lwdwtraining.uk

Minding Your Head

www.mindingyourhead.info/topics/bereavement

Compassionate Communities, Derry

http://compassionatecommunitiesnw.com/services/

Dr Kate Granger

http://www.dyingmatters.org/page/KateGrangerLecture

hellomynameis.org.uk

 

Wind down

winding-down

Apologies, the blog post is almost two weeks late but we’ve been so busy. Thoughts this week from Therese.

Yesterday I pondered over the project’s run over the last year, from gestation to public airing. We met our deadline bang on time with a wonderful evening opening at the Crescent Arts Centre, shared with friends, family, supporters and contributors. And then, last Sunday’s reading, a quieter affair, served to remind us that this was not a journey we’d made alone, but in fact a process that had given many of the writers an opportunity to make some very personal journeys of their own. For Lucy and me, too, it has been a little overwhelming at times.

Installing, hosting and dismantling the exhibition allowed me to draw some comparisons with cultural traditions around death that are familiar to me. The installation felt like making arrangements, working quickly, in a considered way but having to be emotionally detached in order to get things done. The opening (with our whiskey shots), the reading and the nine day exhibition was like ‘wake-ing’ the poetry and prose. As was the care-taking, having someone man it for at least a few hours every day – this felt like a necessary way to honour and respect the work. When it came to dismantling it on Saturday, we did so with focus and determination, trying not to think too hard about it and pushing to one side our sadness at seeing it go.

Will it make another appearance? Perhaps, we’re exploring possibilities but for now, it’s in warm storage.

So now the blog is on the wind down too. Lucy and I must move on to other things but before we do here are a few more favourite items from our Death Box that we’d like to share with you.

The poem Annie by Michael Donaghy has been described as something close to perfection. Sadly Michael Donaghy died aged only 50 from a brain haemorrhage in 2004. He was born in America to Irish emigrants, his father was originally from Belfast.

Annie

Flicker, stranger. Flare and gutter out.
The life you fight for is the light you kept.
That task has passed this hour from wick to window.
Fade you among my dead my never-daughter.

Upriver in your mother’s blood and mine
it’s always night. Their kitchen windows burn
whom we can neither name nor say we loved.
Go to them and take this letter with you.

Go let them pick you up and dandle you
and sing you lullabies before the hob.

Don Paterson, poet and poetry editor for Picador and author of, Smith, A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Michael Donaghy describes Annie as “sadder than an elegy; at least the elegised got to exist.”

Technically this poem has a formal structure, achieved almost effortless by Donaghy. It is for the most part written in iambic pentameter andsmith-don-paterson features consonantal chimes, flicker/flare; gutter/daughter; task/passed; fight/light. In Patterson’s Smith, he draws the reader’s attention to the varied vowels that often “arrive in assonantal pairs – stranger/flare; life/fight; mother’s/blood; never/daughter; name/say, so that one word never really feels alone, just as the child won’t.” There are variances of soft and hard sounds – soft fs – flicker, stranger, flare – and harsher t sounds – gutter, fight, kept, wick. There is heavy usage of ‘you’ for such a short poem, somehow emphasising the poet’s strong desire to communicate with his ‘never-daughter‘. Also unusual is the reference to both the mother’s and father’s blood, a nod to ancestry and reminding us that both parents are bereft. It is a truly beautiful yet heartbreaking poem.

 

extremisAnd finally, a film that didn’t make it into our joint Death Box but is currently available on Netflix. Extremis is a documentary film about end-of-life care that is shot entirely in an Intensive Care Unit at Highland Hospital in Oakland, California. It premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and won “Best Documentary Short.” It takes its name from the Latin expression that means “at the point of death.”

The piece centers on Dr. Jessica Zitter, a palliative care specialist who leads a team helping terminal patients prepare to die. Dr Zitter treats or oversees patients who have no hope of recovery.
Extremis runs for just 24 minutes but manages to address several difficult questions about who ought to make key decisions about when it’s time to stop treatment: Can a patient who is severely ill make a clear decision about when and if to withdraw care? At what point should family members (or surrogates) take over decision-making from a patient? What is the role of a person’s faith even when the science seems irrefutable?

The film is uncomfortable viewing but also fascinating, as viewers will inevitably realise that they may face the same conversations themselves at some point. If Dr Zitter had her way, patients would be having conversations about their wishes far before extremis — “when we’re all healthy, sitting around the dinner table.”

Watching the movie reminded me of Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, (featured in an earlier post). It’s about making plans for retirement, for old age, making important decisions when we are in good health and communicating our wishes to family or friends. It’s also about making the most of every good day we have – a sentiment worth sharing.

 

D-day

The Death Box exhibition is OPEN….our arms ache somewhat from 24 hours of holding up panels, reaching high with measuring tapes and holding steady with spirit levels.  But the poems and prose of 25 writers now adorn the walls of the Gallery at Crescent Arts Centre and we think they read beautifully…

There’s a first in the exhibition for Northern Ireland. Therese has re-created US artist Candy Chang’s ‘Before I Die I want to…. ‘ wall.  Candy’s website (http://candychang.com/work/before-i-die-in-nola/) explains the genesis of the board – after someone very close to her died and, in her processing of her loss, she turned an abandoned house in her New Orleans neighbourhood into a giant chalkboard asking a fill-in-the-blank question: “Before I die I want to.…”

“The wall quickly filled up with responses, from the poetic to the profound: Before I die I want to… see my daughter graduate, abandon all insecurities, get my wife back, eat all the candy and sushi in the world, be a Youtube sensation, straddle the International Date Line, tell my mother I love her, be completely myself.”

We put Candy’s wonderful TED talk into our Death Box a couple of months ago; you can find it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uebxlIrosiM

We’re looking forward to reading what people will write on our board during the exhibition.  And, while I’ve been mulling over what I’m going to write on it later today, I remembered the following poem that a friend gave us for our Death Box  – ‘The Summer Day’ by the fabulous Mary Oliver.  Hold on til you’ve read the last two lines, then get straight on your bike to our exhibition and scribble your answer down on Candy Chang/Therese’s blackboard. And if for whatever reason you can’t make the exhibition, post a comment to this blog.

So, over to you – ‘Before I die I want to……’

The Summer Day’ by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Almost there…

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We’re on the home straight and the Death Box project is at an all consuming stage (the exhibition opens 22nd September at Crescent Arts Centre).

It’s taken over my kitchen. Half of the dining table has disappeared under a mound of paper, stencils, pens, pencils, glue, tape. Nora’s flowers (see ‘Gratitude’ blog post, June) have sprouted into 4 large trays of crocheted bedding plants; to do lists are amended daily and let’s not get started on what’s going on in the garage. It’s both exciting and nerve-wracking. I don’t mind admitting that I’m more of a backroom artist – I get where Banksy’s coming from, but next week Lucy and I will finally ‘lift the lid’ on Death Box and it’s going to be great!

As we approach the end I feel the urge to return to the beginning and to where it all started. Our repository of work relating to death now extends to over one hundred pieces of art, music, film, journalism, fiction, non-fiction and poetry – work that we’ll share with visitors to the exhibition.

max-porterTrailing this fine collection are a few pieces I’ve discovered over the summer and find quite delightful. First up is Max Porter’s, Grief is the Thing with Feathers – a title that references Emily Dickinson’s Hope poem and its opening line, “Hope is the thing with feathers”. Other literary references relate to Ted Hughes and his important Crow collection, for a crow is a key feature of this wonderful debut novella.

The story opens in a London flat, as a husband and two young boys face the unbearable sadness of their wife’s/mother’s death. They are visited by Crow – described as ‘antagonist, trickster, healer and babysitter’. The book is a triumph not simply because it provides such a fundamentally human response to grief but it also avoids being overly sentimental. There is a playfulness in its unusual structure; it is discombobulating at first until you realise how perfectly it reflects the state of being utterly grief-stricken. (It’s also a quick read which always works for me!)

manbooker-a-spool-of-blue-threadAnne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread uses the death of a central character as a defining moment in the story. It comes as a surprise, creating a new twist at a point when the ending seemed quite predictable. And whilst this is also a work of fiction, it manages to  successfully articulate the impact of death and how we deal with it – or not – in real life. As is often the case in Anne Tyler’s writing, she offers well developed characters, credible sequences and relatable family dynamics through an evocative lens.

levels-of-life

Bridging the gap between historical fiction and non-fiction/memoir is Julian Barnes’ Levels Of Life. The common thread of this book is that when, ‘you put together two things that have not been put together before … the world is changed.’ In the first instance this is ballooning and photography which, as the opening chapter explains, requires a certain kind of mastery.

Barnes notes that we live on a level but that as humans we also aspire: ‘some soar in art, others with religion, most with love’. Inevitably then, there has to be a crash landing. The balloon works as a metaphor for life. Barnes is an uxorious man and devotes the book to his wife, Pat, who he soared with for thirty years of marriage until her death.

While Barnes reveals his unbearable feelings of abandonment, longing and mourning he holds back on sharing the last intimate moments with his wife. He is refreshingly honest in admonishing insensitive remarks from friends who cannot understand what he is going through, purely because they have not been through a similar experience. He ends the book by telling us that he still talks to her as though she were there. It would appear that ‘moving on’ is quite simply enduring his loss every day; it floats alongside him, externally invisible though the internal weight is colossal.

And finally, if you can possibly take any more… perhaps listening to this amazing piece of music might just recalibrate your emotions.

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel Im Spiegel has been described as a piece ‘with a powerful emotional impact’ and was the subject of a BBC Radio 4 programme, Soul Music http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b013q20t in 2011.

It has featured in over 19 movies, many television documentaries and movie trailers and whilst not a piece inspired by death it is deeply moving, calming and restorative – now who would deny themselves that? Please click the link below.

 

Living with the dying in South Africa

Dr Rachel Bray, an anthropologist who has worked in the UK, Nepal and South Africa, has been following our blog.  In 2011 she worked with a group of young people in South Africa whose parents were dying from AIDS. Below she tells us about her experience and what she learned from it.

AIDS has brought unprecedented levels of sickness and death to communities across southern Africa. It means that hundreds of thousands of children and grandparents are responsible for caring for the adults upon whom they’d previously depended. And as deaths from AIDS rise, levels of fear and uncertainty increase because the stigma that surrounds the illness prevents open discussion of what might lie ahead.

In 2011 I spent 5 weeks living, with my own young family, in a burgeoning township in the hills north of Cape Town.  My remit was to understand more profoundly what it meant to be a ‘young carer’ and how young carers deal with the premature death of their parents.

Rachel blog 2

I befriended families in which one or more adult had a long-term AIDS-related sickness, and set up an art club for children over the school holidays.  There we painted a community map, made clay models of family sharing and each child created a mini-movie about their life.Through these activities I learnt about the everyday lives, hopes and concerns of 15 young people aged nine to 17.

I asked them to list their chores at home.  Cooking, cleaning, cutting wood and fetching water were top of a long list, but care for sick adults did not feature. Where was the ‘work burden’ I had expected to find? Once invited to spend time in their shacks, I quickly realised that these children saw the care as part and parcel of their role at home and they were proud to do it.  I saw how attentive they were to a sick parent, making them coffee, gently reminding them to take their medication and sitting by their bedside with a cold flannel when fevers spiked.

“Yet the differences in the conditions … could not have been starker”

One frosty early morning I sat chatting with 13 year-old Asamahle, warming our hands at a brazier.  We discovered that we share a birthday.  My sense of affinity with this busy, brave young woman grew from the initial realisation that she too was a firstborn daughter who had taken on care responsibilities she could not have predicted. Yet the differences in the conditions in which we had done so could not have been starker. For several months when I was 18 I shopped and cooked for my siblings after my waitressing shifts while my Mum looked after her parents in their home several hundred miles away. But I still had time to hang out with my friends and plan a trip to Asia. Asamahle barely stopped to eat, let alone enjoy any leisure time. She always knew the whereabouts of her four younger siblings, how they were each feeling, spent every Saturday hand-washing the entire family’s clothing, cooked daily alongside her ailing mother and fetched her medication from the clinic. It was a hard grind.  I was profoundly struck by the mutual respect and intimacy between Asamahle and her mother that gave a tangible richness to their materially impoverished home. And listening closely to interactions between Asamahle and her siblings showed me that family survival depended on the children’s ability to protect each other from unwelcome eyes and voices: malicious neighbourhood gossip about those suffering from AIDS-related illnesses, fuelled by stigma, could quickly sever the webs of support needed when times got really tough.

But what did all this mean for Asamahle, and in what ways did it prepare her for the  probable premature loss of her mother? Like the adults in her community, her knowledge of what HIV can do to the body was patchy and flawed. Her hopes lay in the vitamin pills that her mother had invested in through her local savings group. But she also knew how much her care meant to her mother and siblings at a physical and emotional level.  And she was proud of what she could offer and knew where to go for help when she reached her limit. In many ways, Asamahle and her peers were more fulfilled through their contributions to care at home than they were at school, due in part to the very poor quality of their education but also to the strengthening bonds of mutual attention and affection.

Rachel blog 1

In the three years since I met this remarkable group of young people I have often reflected on the broader relevance of what I learnt. To see them solely as ‘victims’ of a life-threatening illness is clearly inadequate, and the same may be true for other young people anticipating the premature death of a parent.  Asamahle and her mother were, consciously or otherwise, weaving threads of continuity between the world they knew and the unknowns ahead. It felt as if they were forming a more coherent picture in the tapestry of what it is to be human, than that often depicted in our ‘progressive’ society and, relatedly, within policies to improve child protection and offer empowerment.  Stopping to observe what occurs below the surface is something anthropologists are privileged to be able to prioritise. I soon realised that my role was to record the details and translate them in ways that others, including local NGOs and governments,could understand.

“it was all I could do to fight back the tears…The irresolvable nature of these challenges played out for me in vivid dreams,  yet the tenacity of the sick adults and their loyal children shone through”

At a personal level, this research was immensely challenging. As my own young children joined the games after art club, asking questions about the circumstances of their new playmates, it was all I could do to fight back the tears when explaining these as gently as possible. I was aware of innumerable ethical dilemmas about whether and how to step in, having witnessed extreme suffering and encountered local services only ostensibly providing relevant help.

“I began to see the importance of allowing death into the room…And for death to linger there and to be, in a certain way, nurtured.”

The irresolvable nature of these challenges played out for me in vivid dreams, yet the tenacity of the sick adults and their loyal children shone through. With time, I began to see another side to these young people’s proximity to illness and death. Alongside their understandable fear of impending loss, they were creating bridges between the familiar and the unknown by simply being present and responsive to situations as they arose. I believe that these were the foundations of memories that would sustain them in the event of a parent dying. Why? Because the way many young people coped with the uncertainties of urban poverty was to recall grandparental warmth and family gatherings that they had left behind in their rural homes. Few retained access to these anchors in any other form than memory, yet they still served their purpose. I began to see the importance of allowing death into the room, for it to occupy a space of possibility as it did for these young people who were unable to predict the progression of AIDS-related illness. And for death to linger there and to be, in a certain way, nurtured.

We’re back…

…and excited about the final phase of the Death Box. During September we’re going to be:

Exhibiting – our year long project will culminate in the Death Box Exhibition, 22nd-30th September in The Gallery at Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast (please come along and spread the word; a snapshot of our beautiful poster is below).  On Sunday 25th September at 3pm some of the writers will be reading their work in the Gallery. (Admission to both the exhibition and reading is free.)

Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 09.23.57

Publishing – we’re about to press print on a publication (generously supported by law firm Cleaver Fulton Rankin) that will include all the poems and prose from the Exhibition, plus some extra gems from our project participants.  This will be available at the exhibition.

Blogging – we’ll be back at this blog posting weekly until the end of September. We’ll keep dipping into our Death Box to share more of its contents with you. Next week a guest blogger will be writing about her experience working alongside children caring for their dying parents in South Africa.  And we’re also pulling together a list of websites, books, organisations that we’ve come across since we started the Death Box and we’ll pass those on to you via the blog.

So, back to the Death Box, our virtual repository of art, music, writing, film, dance and journalism inspired by and about death. I’d like to share a very recent addition – BBC Radio 4’s Unforgettable series which aired at the end of August; you can find the 5 episodes here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07r1jtj/episodes/player and they are magic!

The blurb from the BBC website explains the programme as follows – Playback technology enables five guests to have a real-time conversation with someone, now dead, with whom they have, or have wanted to have, a connection…Producer Adam Fowler facilitates a real-time conversation between the two participants, using conversational snippets of the deceased from past recordings. The guest has no advance knowledge of the excerpts, and the conversation can take unexpected turns, occasionally leading to some emotionally charged interchanges, as living voices engage with those preserved in the archive.

Each programme is only 15 minutes long but the combination of this brilliant technology, the dead and the living, and the emotional connection between the interviewees is at times breathtaking. If you only have time for two programmes, I’d go for the interviews between David Temple and his brother in law Derek Jarman and between Maya Angelou and her grandson, Colin Johnson. If you only have time for one? David Temple and Derek Jarman.

There were moments while I was listening when I believed the two people talking were in the same room together, simply catching up after some time apart…

These programmes are an amazing starting point for imagined conversations between the living and the dead.

 

Where, when, how did it all begin?

IMG_6747

We lived in the middle of rolling countryside, sandwiched between the chapel and the graveyard, this one, next door to our house. There was a shop across the road that did a sleepy trade most days except on Sunday mornings, when the road was buzzing in between  masses. And after each mass, parishioners nipped into the graveyard to say a prayer. The creak of the graveyard gate meant no-one could go in or out without us knowing, unless they hopped over the stile in the wall, dipping their fingers in St Brigid’s foot-print and blessing themselves as they did so. I don’t know who told me it was St Brigid’s foot-print but it seemed quite likely along with the “Holy” rain water. I liked to think of St Brigid balancing on one leg on top of that wall. She must have been some acrobat.

I used to go for walks in the graveyard and when the paths were put in it was a great place to ride a bike – mine was a second-hand Chopper. In late spring, before the bus came to take me to school, I often raced to gather the last of the daffodils for the May altar – making sure I picked the ones between the graves and not the ones on them of course.

I paid particular attention to funerals – my father usually brought news of the dead. The men would come to dig the grave and a day or so later there’d be the funeral. At the weekends and during school holidays, we saw them all. The house quietened under the bell’s solemn toll; fell into silence as the sound of the mourners’ footsteps passed by. From the dining room we watched the cortege flow, a river of black, past our house where we stood behind white net curtains.

I grew up surrounded by the dead and they never bothered me. There’s no-one belonging to me buried here, perhaps that’s why – although my father recently pointed out his plot, adding that he’d been looking after the wrong one for years! I think having a ring-side  seat to life’s last journeys made a strong impression at an early age and maybe writing about death reminds me of home. It’s not black or white that’s for sure, but enough to get me going.

We’ve come a long way since we kick-started Death Box over a year ago. We’ve found death in many media : literature, journalism, music, art and film and now have many more pieces of poetry and prose to add to our repository including contributors’ work and our own, which we’ll be talking about in subsequent posts.

We are taking a blog break for the next four or five weeks in the spirit of something Virginia Woolf once said, “I meant to write about death only life came breaking in as usual…
i.e. making the most of school holidays, visiting family in far flung places and taking time to recharge our batteries. We will return with more from our repository and more guest posts, also updates on the project as it enters its final stages and news about the exhibition in September. Please stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Memento mori

Rosary skull

This week, some visual art from our Death Box. To our modern eyes and sensibilities these images might seem deeply repugnant, unattractive, morbid….but bear with us. Therese and I spent a week staring at them when we set ourselves a creative writing assignment on the theme of memento mori and we think they’re at least worth pausing in front of.  In fact we would like to propose them as portals, that can take us back to other periods in history when attitudes to death were quite different to our own…

A bit of background. In the fifteenth century in Europe, funeral art and architecture became quite the thing on tombs: if you had been wealthy you might have had a cadaver tomb which depicted your decayed corpse.  Later, Puritan tombstones in the United States frequently depicted winged skulls, angels snuffing out candles or skeletons.

On the theme of skeletons, there’s the Capela dos Ossos (the Chapel of Bones) in Évora, Portugal (see photo below) built in the 16th century by a monk who wanted to prod his fellow brothers into contemplation about the transitory nature of life.  The walls are covered by human remains, mostly bones, and at the entrance of the Chapel is the warning, “we bones that are here await yours”. Hmmmm, I can feel that prod digging into my back….

Chapel Evora

In the seventeenth century the memento mori painting became very popular. It would remind the viewer of their mortality and of the shortness and fragility of human life.  A basic memento mori painting would include a skull and other symbols commonly used included hour glasses or clocks, extinguished or guttering candles, fruit and flowers. This in a religious age when almost everyone believed that life on earth was merely a preparation for an afterlife.

StillLifeWithASkull

Philippe de Champaigne, Vanitas c. 1671

Public clocks would also be decorated with mottos, such as ultima forsan – “perhaps the last [hour]” – or vulnerant omnes, ultima necat – “they all wound, and the last kills”. Today some clocks still carry the motto tempus fugit – “time flees”. Individuals would also carry smaller reminders of their own mortality around with them. Mary, Queen of Scots, apparently owned a large watch carved in the form of a silver skull (although the British Museum denies this).

It is harder to find contemporary examples of memento mori art.  I think on the whole this genre of art displeases us, we are repelled by these artworks and turn away from them.  (Certainly when I was researching the images my husband groaned when he saw them printed on my desk, turned and walked straight out the room; although this might also have been his expression of a mild frustration that I – and Therese – spend so much time talking about death these days!). But I think our reaction must be linked to society’s distancing from dying and death – the ‘sanitisation’ of dying and more and more people dying in hospital rather than in their homes. We are also obsessed with youth and appearing young and vibrant; who wants to stare at a flower on the cusp of decay, a putrid apple or a skull? We prefer our flesh plump and wrinkle free, thank you very much!

So, I leave you with the thought – how might we create a memento mori for the 21st century?  Perhaps an artistic/commercial venture for the Death Box community to take on? Who knows, in a few years’ time, when you’re browsing through Ikea’s Market Place for that multi-pack of napkins, you might come across ‘X’ and remember this post!  Suggestions on a postcard please.

Allowing The Ghosts

What do we talk about when we talk about… death?

Well, as we have widened the circle and invited more writers to join the conversation it seems there is an infinite number of ways to deal with it. Here are some thoughts from another Death Box participant, writer Bronagh Mallon.

Highgate CemeteryImage: Highgate Cemetery, London; Christina Rossetti is buried here

The moment of a death, and how we come to know about it, often shapes how we deal with that death. I’ve experienced both expected and unexpected deaths. With each of my loved ones their deaths defined them for a long time until the ghost of them, the true memory of them, transcended the event and came back to me in a more recognisable and comforting form.

As a young child I was terrified by the notion of ghosts.  I imagined all of them were gruesome, malevolent and utterly terrifying.  It was my granny who set me straight on ghosts.  She told me that people in death are the same as they were in life. As a child I only knew good people and so I figured that if they wouldn’t harm me in life, they wouldn’t harm me in death.  She was the first ghost I allowed into my life. I allowed her to return, to slip into my daydreams and hold me close until our remembered love permitted me to once again smile on thinking of her.

As humans we have always celebrated life at the point of death; small trinkets laid carefully alongside Stone Age bones, huge pyramids with canopic jars and hoards of treasure – each in our own way, we have celebrated our dead.  And then, in time, we begin the process of allowing the ghosts, those good ghosts, to come back to us.

How we remember and the ghosts we allow brings me to a poem by Christina Rossetti that I would like to share with you. I wonder if any of you allow your ghosts, and what do they do for you when they come?

Remember Me

Remember me when I am gone away,

Gone far away into the silent land;

When you can no more hold me by the hand,

Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Remember me when no more day by day

You tell me of our future that you plann’d:

Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Yet if you should forget me for a while

And afterwards remember, do not grieve:

For if the darkness and corruption leave

A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,

Better by far you should forget and smile

Than that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Rossetti

 

Gratitude

When faced with death, we expect kindness, more than that, we rely on it to get us through one of life’s most difficult experiences.IMG_6741

Kindness comes in many forms: practical help and support, words of comfort and concern, people who offer the highest possible standards of their professions and people who are just there for us.

When Lucy and I began this project it was just the two of us and several poets, novelists, artists, journalists, musicians, etc [whose work we were exploring] – indeed many of whom are deceased. We dipped into a deep reservoir of the most fascinating material and greedily quenched our thirst until however which way we turned, it seemed as though death was coming at us!

Establishing the project on a firmer footing was not only a test of our nerves but of a collective kindness that enables us to do so. Pledges of support came readily from our three excellent workshop facilitators, Ruth Carr, Jo Egan and Sharon Kelly. The NI Arts Council grant was a tremendous boost. Assistance in delivering Northern Ireland’s first ever Death Café came voluntarily from a number of sources and it turned out to be a wonderful success. Maria Marnell from McGowans Print met us very early on, winced at our budget but keeps making positive noises about how we’ll make it work. The very talented Nora Borealis is responsible for the colourful splash [in the photograph] above and is busy knitting more flowers for one of our exhibits. Professional writer and project participant, Gillian Colhoun has signed up to design our exhibition poster. Solicitor firm Cleaver Fulton Rankin has made a financial contribution to enable us to produce a small publication – which we’re absolutely thrilled about. And the Crescent Arts Centre management team has been so pleasant and helpful in facilitating us for meetings and workshops.

We are hugely grateful to everyone, including our participants, whose involvment extends the conversation to over 30 people. To those outside of our workshops, we are especially grateful for their financial and in-kind support, but also for their generosity of spirit. Thank you one and all.

There are of course some things we still need, polystyrene for a start, and if anyone knows where we can get some super cheap [or free] folding tables, please do let us know!

And while we are delighted with our commercial sponsors’ contributions, we could easily accommodate a bit more! This is what we can offer and if you think it might appeal to anyone you know please do pass it on:

£50 = Be a Death Box Friend – we’ll acknowledge your support at our Exhibition

£100 = Be a Death Box Supporter – we’ll feature your name/logo in all Exhibition and promotional material.

The Lead Sponsor slot has already been taken by Cleaver Rankin Fulton Solicitors, Belfast.

I’d like to finish with these lovely words from Dr Oliver Sack’s book Gratitude – a set of four essays in which he movingly explored his feelings about completing a life and coming to terms with his own death. I heartily recommend it.

Oliver Sacks quote 2