Death is one of life’s few universal experiences. As long as people are born, people will die. And as long as people have died, artists have played an integral role in creating cultural death practices. Whether providing care for the body of the deceased with intricate textile shrouds and sculpted death masks, comforting the grieving with funerary effigies, or performing ritual ceremonies for the surrounding community, artists have always been part of death work.
Despite this universality, much of contemporary Western culture is death-avoidant. This manifests in a lack of preparedness for end-of-life care, social isolation for those grieving, and existential anxieties, to name a few consequences. The commercialization and hyper-medicalization of death in the funerary and medical industries are certainly key forces in this modern avoidance. Separation from and loss of cultural practices due to colonization, land theft, genocide, slavery, and assimilation had already cleared the way for these industries to be the default option when facing a loss, and often the only legal one. Funerary arts, in all of their unique presentations and forms, contradict the current standards by reaffirming the necessity of cultural deathcare through their persistent creation across time and place.
My journey in death work began as my mother Sylvia’s caregiver in the final year of her life. After her death my art practice shifted to focus on having honest conversations about grief and dispelling misinformation on death and dying. Throughout making and researching, I fell down the rabbit hole of thanatology, the neuroscience of grief and caregiving support, and eventually studied to become a death doula, a non-medical support role for end-of-life care and advocacy. It became increasingly important to not only share my own story, but embolden others to do the same, provide educational resources, and work alongside peers in the death-positivity movement to achieve equitable, ethical, and culturally relevant deathcare.
The Great Pyramid at Giza is both a monumental work of art and architecture and one of the world’s most famous and recognizable tombs. When leading creative memorial workshops, I cite this example as a reminder to participants that grave markers and memorials can be so much more than a flat slab of stone. The vessels and markers that carry us in death, from a shroud to an urn to a casket and more, show us how our cultures relate to the body in death. They can be whimsical, intimate, colorful, ephemeral, made of any number of materials, and can honor the wishes of the deceased based on their beliefs and values. Not everyone wants a monumental tomb, but considering this example provides an opening to the wide range of possibilities that exist around the world, and ones we have yet to imagine.
These funerary artworks demonstrate how our cultures connect to the deceased in the absence of the body through expressions of grief that are supported by the greater community. Mourning songs, dances, wardrobes, and even types of food signify the importance of showing and sharing grief to acknowledge the transformation that accompanies loss. We now have a new kind of relationship with the dead, and a new identity as a result of their death. A wife becomes a widow, a child becomes an orphan; we still speak to the dead and love them, but with the knowledge of our different states of being. These performative acts facilitate this transformation by embodying it through movement, wearable components, and participation of family and community. This embodiment aspect is just as vital as the objects involved for many reasons, including that grief itself is a physical experience.
Funerary arts are a pillar of deathcare, and they shed light on the significance of art and creativity in processing loss and honoring the dead. These practices play a vital role in preserving key cultural values and knowledge keeping while reminding us of our humanity by so devotedly caring for the dead. Much work must be done in healing intergenerational traumas and recovering or reinventing rituals of grief and mourning, but we are making strides toward more death-accepting cultural norms in Western societies. As we collectively mend our relationship with death, new visions of death and dying will continue to spring from the hearts and minds of artists witnessing the needs of our times and hopes for the future of deathcare. And simultaneously we can consider for ourselves: What kind of burial vessel would bring me peace in facing death? What songs do I want my loved ones to sing when mourning me? What legacy do I wish to leave behind to bring comfort in my absence?
Editor’s Note: This is part of the 2023/24 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and the first of three posts by the author, the third of which will be an online exhibition published on Hyperallergic and sent to all newsletter subscribers. Register here for Brianna L. Hernández’s virtual event moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Tuesday, March 5, at 6pm (EST).