On the End of Life Studies MSc Programme, there is a course entitled Cultural Representations of Death and Dying which examines how dying, death and grief have been represented in popular culture (film, TV, mainstream fiction), visual arts (fine art, photography) and literary genres (creative non- fiction) over the last half century. Students are introduced to methods of visual and literary analysis and we study how specific cultural tropes are used to represent the end of life.
One of the most innovative aspects of the course is that for one of the assignments, students are asked to produce their own creative representation of end of life. They are given almost complete freedom to work in any medium and to follow their own creative instincts. The only fixed criterion is that their representation is accompanied by a short commentary. This commentary is meant to demonstrate the ways in which the student’s piece has been inspired and informed by their understanding of the course content and themes.
Last semester (Summer 2022), student submissions comprised the following impressive range of media: poetry, video, song, ceramics, collage, still life, photography, needlework, coiled sewn basket-making, painting, and memoir. Below, seven of the students present their work for public viewing.
Painting: “So I’ll be off now then?”
This painting was created in memory of my dad, Arthur, who died on an elderly care ward, in a general hospital on the south coast of England in November 2014. I was not present when he died. No one was present when he died.
I used acrylic paint and black fine line pen on a 24-inch by 30-inch canvas. My aim was to make visual and visceral a death I was absent for. The purpose was to capture the moment of my dad’s death in the context of an impersonal hospital ward.
The painting features a hospital ward. Three patients occupy beds in the background. Two are sitting up, while the third, representing my dad, is lying down. In the foreground are three nurses and two doctors. Recognisable by their uniforms and badges, the nurses and doctors are depicted as characters I refer to as “ciphers”. The term cipher has different meanings depending on context. In this context I am referring to a blank and thoughtless state, an empty shell, something appearing to be something it is not. The depiction of staff as ciphers serves as a vent for my frustration and anger at what I perceived to be a detached indifference and nonchalance towards the death of my dad.
My studies on the course Cultural Representations of Death and Dying have affected the lens through which I view my dad’s death. Jacobsen (2016) refers to the modern consumption of mediatised death as a spectacle. My dad’s own death was anything but that. Indeed, it was more representative of Aries’s notion of the forbidden death, which incorporated the arrival of the modern hospital and hiding death away (Aries, 1981). Paradoxically, my dad died alone and unnoticed yet in full public view on the ward.
The painting represents many things. The memory of my dad, Arthur. An outlet for the frustration, anger, and grief I feel. To bring his death visually to me as a kind of embodied, surrogate memory. And finally, to represent what I know to be the depersonalising environment of the modern hospital ward, for those who are dying.
Needlework: “Threads of Grief”
My family has a tradition of stitching, passed down from my grandmother, through which we mark life events such as birth, marriage, new homes, etc. However, none of us had ever stitched to mark grief. I wondered if I could use needlework to represent the grief following the death of my sister Joanne.
Inspired by Doty’s (1997) description of grief as something that circles and loops back, I chose a pattern of Celtic knots. This reflects not only my Irish heritage but also these knots are continuous, without beginning or end, and symbolize eternal spirit. The patterns I chose were detailed and intricate reflecting the complexity of my grief and loss.
Shortly after I began the project, my father died suddenly. This project shifted from the memory of grief following my sister’s death (in 2008) to a representation of grief in real time.
Sixteen squares represent the time from palliative diagnosis to the completion of the project, with the diagonal orientation portraying the growth of grief over time. I used colours to represent the intensity of grief: black – numbness/disbelief; red – pain/shock; grey – the fading of numbness; green – hope/ family. There is an absence of thread at the time of my dad’s death – everything had stopped. The top right square represents where I was at the time I finished the project, about 6 weeks after my dad’s death – a precarious balance between the new reality of life (green) and the reminders of my father’s and sister’s deaths (red).
Throughout the process, I made many mistakes – a symbol of the clumsiness I was feeling. As well, I was struck by the tangle of threads on the back of the cloth – a symbol of the chaos I felt inside. It was a stark contrast to the order and pattern on the front – similar to what I was presenting to the world.
Stitching this representation helped me to channel my grief into a positive transformation of my loss, with the completion of each knot giving me reason to hope. I found beauty within my grief – family, continuity, remembrance – as grief and love were intertwined within each knot.
Video: “These precious days – a death in four poems”
In late 2006 my sister Katie was diagnosed with liposarcoma. During the next few years she was treated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In the end though, treatment ceased to work and Katie died on 16 September 2010 aged just 39. Understandably, her loss hit the whole family very hard. For my part, I found writing to be a way of making some sense of the grief that we all felt and so, in planning this current assignment, I decided to revisit some poems I had written from that time.
I wanted to use the knowledge and insight I’d acquired through the course, so rather than simply submitting the poems, I chose to record myself reading them aloud in different settings. This enabled me to create a short video that is both a grief memoir and a representation of Katie’s end of life. Two key elements of this representation are “finitude”, the shrinking down of time to a foreshadowed end, and “absence”.
Some of the references were planned and are direct and almost literal. For example, I sit next to an empty bed in one scene, an empty place on a sofa in another, and the music (September Song sung by Lotte Lenya) speaks of “days dwindling down”. But while studying the materials on the course I became aware of other echoes and correspondences, for example with the Doty’s Heaven’s Coast or Sontag’s “two kingdoms”. For me, this underlines that, while everyone’s grief is unique, in trying to represent our responses to illness and death, we draw from a common stock of ideas, images and symbols.
Music: “Will I know?” A song of my death
Will I know? – A Song by Norma Reather
Music is all around us and used in ways that affect the listener. I wrote my mini-memoir about my own death and dying and set it to music. I had many questions about my death, questions I’d wondered when my mom died 15 years ago, and these in turn made me question what my daughter might ask when I die. Many of these questions became the lyrics to “Will I know?”
This process led to many more verses than could make the final cut. I chose my second verse to fit with the teachings of our Cultural Representations course – my memento mori – the Latin words for “remembering we must die” as well as my token to leave for my daughter when I’m dead. We discussed standard images like dandelions blowing away, and I asked:
“Will I float on the breeze like dandelions do?”
And in my Chorus:
“Will I know, that my life’s really over? Will I know if you turn me to ash?
Will I feel you walk over my grave when you’re there, when I’m dead?”
When I visit my own mom’s gravestone, who was cremated and interred, I always wonder if she knows I’m there, which makes me wonder if I will know if/when my daughter visits me. Bob Plant’s work on The Banality of Death (2009) made me question what I was writing because all deaths are predictable and unoriginal. I know I’m going to die, but what I felt about teaching my daughter about death, especially my own death mattered to me. I wanted to leave her with something that said, “it is okay, I love you, and I hope we meet again”. I also put my song to easily accessible stock images from the internet to create a small video, which reinforce Plant’s ideas of banality – the very ease of finding these images of death and dying shows us that death is unoriginal.
Collage: “The Work of End-of-Life Doulas”
The end-of-life doula is a role that has recently emerged in the death, dying and bereavement field. End-of-life doulas (EOLDs) provide support to the dying and their families. The work of EOLDs currently operates on the margins of a formal healthcare system, limiting their accessibility and visibility within society. So how are EOLDs culturally represented to the wider community? How do they reflect the work and services they provide? I explore this by examining the imagery on individual EOLD practitioner websites, to see how they represent themselves. From this imagery I created a visual collage to reflect the stories and messages of the profession.
The images for this collage were obtained by visiting the websites of practicing EOLDs sourced through the EOLD Association of Canada directory. I deliberately selected images, not text, to capture a visual representation of what doulas are trying to communicate about their work. I chose one to two images per website, selecting the images that were most prominently displayed. The final collage image was purposely selected to be in a circle shape. The circle is a key symbol in native spirituality as the ‘sacred hoop’, so reflects the spiritual work of some EOLDs. It also represents the ‘circle of life’ and ‘circle of care’ both of which are fundamental to the work of an EOLD.
Reflecting on my choice for this assignment I think it is interesting that as a practising EOLD I stayed away from representing any of the experiences I have had with families or even within my personal life for this piece. For someone whose work is all about supporting and journeying with people at end-of-life I found myself compelled to keep that work sacred, and for it not to be shared. I find this very interesting……
Holding – Clay model by Rae Hayden
Gina Taditi Ruiz
Poetry: “Eleven literary calaveritas – a lighthearted Mexican momento mori”
Calavera means skull in Spanish. However, calavera (or the diminutive calaverita) is also used to denote a form of poetry in Mexico. These poems are classic memento mori and one of many cultural representations of death in Mexico; however, they are barely known beyond the country’s borders.
Calaveritas use wordplay to ensure rhyming and rhythm. Usually dedicated to an individual, such poems are written with subtle irony and musicality, and they are used to point out some of the traits, vices, or unique qualities of the subject. Their use has changed over time, and now they are seen as a way of celebrating Mexican traditions, of honouring people in one’s family and social networks, and, sometimes, of mocking public figures.
I wrote eleven calaveritas dedicated to my peers and lecturers on the MSc programme and personalized them accordingly. My starting point was the profession, interests, or verbal mannerisms of the people to whom the calaveritas are dedicated. For some, I was inspired by specific events that happened during the weekly seminars. I wrote them in Spanish, and translated them into English. In some instances, I used English phrases in the originals because these phrases underpinned the meaning of specific verses. I also made use of the various names for death in Mexico. I am conscious that the English translation does not maintain the rhyme, rhythm, or even the precise meaning. I think this may explain why literary calaveritas have resisted the Day of the Dead’s commercialization trend around the world, a topic we studied on the course.
Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. London: Allen Lane, 1981.
Plant, B., 2009. The Banality of Death. Philosophy. 84(4), pp. 571-596.
Doty, M., 1997. Heaven’s Coast: a memoir. London: Vintage.
Frank, A.W., 2013. The wounded storyteller: body, illness, and ethics. 2nd ed. London; Chicago: University of Chicago Press (for Susan Sontag quote)
Jacobsen, M., 2016. “Spectacular Death” – Proposing a New Fifth Phase to Philippe Ariès’s Admirable History of Death. Humanities. 5(2), pp. 19-39.