During the past year that I’ve been working on this blog, a lot of people have asked me – aside from the general inquisitions about my seemingly morbid interest in anything dead and dying: “Claudia, what is this death awareness thing exactly? What does it mean?!” As the concept of death awareness is popping up out of obscurity a lot recently, let me explain it to you.
After my mother passed away last month, I took a trip to Iceland to clear my head and renew my energy. The landscape and climate perfectly fit my mood, yet it being unknown territory put things in a different perspective and helped me transition into a new beginning. I visited two cemeteries during my stay in Iceland’s winter wonderland: one in downtown Reykjavik and a smaller one in Vik. If you’re into snow covered graves and tiny wooden churches, I have some treats in store for you!
We all know it: Sooner or later, each of us is going to die. In Buddhist traditions, meditating on death awareness is one of the oldest practices. But here in the West, we don’t want to be confronted with the subject. We don’t like to think the seemingly unthinkable. Some of us are even convinced that mere thoughts of death will trigger the actual event. What happens when we do face our biggest fear? What happens when we confront ourselves with our own death? Here are some steps to help you figure out the answers for yourself.
Dutch movie director Tom Six (Alkmaar, the Netherlands, 1973) is best known for his horror trilogy ‘The Human Centipede’ – a cult movie so shocking it has been banned in several countries. I was interested in learning more about the person behind this controversial work of film-art so I asked Tom what inspired him to make this, and how he really feels about the inevitable human end of human life that comes with death.
Dutch artist Janno Hahn (1980) is a “typo-graphic-designer” who combines his own distinct style of typography with graphic design in his numerous projects, varying from printed typefaces to art installations. As he also creates tombstone designs and his work has a certain air of existentialism, I thought it was a good idea to ask Janno about his thoughts on death and the process of creating a custom made hand carved tombstone.
Christian Fuchs (Lima, 1979) is a Peruvian artist who gives new meaning to the concept of ancestor worship. Through his photography he transforms himself into his relatives by creating self-portraits inspired by their portraits and paintings. He brings them back from the past, using himself as both a vessel and a canvas. I spoke with Christian about his intriguing family history, his various psychic experiences and the impact of the recent death of his beloved grandmother.
Through her detailed drawings and paintings which contain a strong narrative element, Elisa Pesapane (1979) gives expression to the subjects that most inspire her. With references to the world of literature, she creates images that have a deep personal resonance. I had a humbling conversation with her about her two stillborn daughters, processing these experiences through creativity, and the idea behind her stunning Danse Macabre drawings.
As my mother entered the final phase of her life due to terminal cancer, these past few months I was faced with the challenge of putting A Course in Dying into practice. What was most remarkable to me during this process is how some of my experiences were not at all like how I had imagined them to be. In the light of truth and the ultimacy of reality, I feel it is important to share this honest account with you. To give you an insight into the various scenarios of how we cope with death and loss.
Rick Strassman (Los Angeles, 1952) is a medical doctor specialized in psychiatry and the author of the acclaimed book “DMT: The Spirit Molecule” in which he shares his groundbreaking research on N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) during which he administered 400 doses of the powerful psychedelic drug to 60 volunteers at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine. The participants reported having profound near-death and mystical experiences, hence its nickname “the spirit molecule”. DMT is present inside the human pineal gland and can be found in animals and plants as well. Shamans in the Amazon extract it from a mixture of plants known as ayahuasca and use it to go on spiritual quests. I asked Dr. Strassman about his own experiences with death and his thoughts on the connection between DMT and the dying process.
Mesmerizing installations, sculptures and films are only a few of the mediums through which multidisciplinary artist Hans Op de Beeck reflects on our complex society and the universal questions of meaning and mortality that resonate within it. His works place the viewer in non-existent but familiar surroundings that evoke a sense of absurdity for our postmodern existence. Hans was born in 1969 and lives and works in Brussels. I was pleased to chat with him about the way he translates his experiences of impermanence and loss through his art and how the reality of death can alter one’s view on life.
Dutch author Arnon Grunberg was born in Amsterdam in 1971, made his debut at the early age of 23 with his autobiographical novel ‘Blue Mondays’ and soon became known as the enfant terrible of the Dutch literary world. His latest novel ‘Moedervlekken’ (Birthmarks) was inspired by the events surrounding the death of his mother, who was a survivor of Auschwitz. He lives in New York and writes for several newspapers, including the The New York Times. I got the chance to ask Mr. Grunberg a few things about his perspective on death, how he deals with the loss of his loved ones and his wishes for his own funeral.
Throughout human history, we have invented rituals to remember and reconnect with the dead. Studying the social evolution of these rituals can help to make sense of what we are doing today. But not all our rituals can be so easily explained. In this piece I want to reflect on the ways we attempt to make sense of bereavement: meaning-making through death rituals.
Back in August I took a summer school thanatology course at the Radboud University in Nijmegen: Death and Meaning Making in Europe. As part of the program we went on an excursion to a nearby crematorium to learn how the process of cremation actually works. I imagine you guys are just as curious as I was to see what goes on behind the curtains, so I will share my findings with you in this report.