The Importance of Art in a “Good Death”

Everyone deserves a good death. This is a common phrase used in the deathcare field. It speaks to the humanity needed in end-of-life support, and the reality that not everyone experiences a good death. A “good death” is unique to each person, but broadly speaking it is a collection of environmental, relational, and emotional elements surrounding death that are in alignment with the values of the dying. Like any other lived experience, intersections of race, religion, sexuality, gender, ability, and socioeconomic status impact access to a good death. 

A few examples of personal agency for a good death include: the option to die in one’s own home instead of a medical facility; access to medical aid in dying; choice of burial, cremation, embalming, green burial, or other alternatives; and financial capacity to pay for medical and funeral costs. The resurgence of deathcare workers across industries, including those of us who are both artists and death workers, presents an opportunity to creatively reimagine what a good death can look like today and the advocacy needed in cases where a good death is denied.

Resham Mantri and Eliana Yoneda are two artists and death doulas who are collaborators and founders of Community Deathcare Digest, an evolving collection of art projects and death cafes, as well as a bi-weekly newsletter about death and care. The newsletter gathers resources and educational content, and coordinates mutual aid for death rituals and funeral needs. The Art of Endings, their virtual series of workshops on grief, invites interactive engagement and contributions from guest artists. Each aspect of their work is rooted in creating systems of care to provide healing and disrupt ongoing cycles of intergenerational harm in death care.

Their recent participatory art installation, “Holding Space,” was born of their mutual desire to create a tangible place for gathering in grief and honoring ancestral traditions. The work itself incorporates the global symbolism of marigolds, textiles from Mantri’s ancestral homeland in India, and hand-written expressions of loss. Walking into the immersive space gives visitors a literal and social sense of shelter “for collective and personal grief to be witnessed and held.” 

While Mantri and Yoneda continue to cultivate community and mutual support as artist-death doulas, Shinnecock artist, educator, and activist Denise Silva-Dennis is advocating for the dignity of ancestral burial sites and remains.

Silva-Dennis serves on the board of the Graves Protection Warrior Society (GPWS), a group of Shinnecock tribal members working together to protect, preserve, and restore burial sites on Long Island. As part of her role with GPWS she designs logos and protest posters, and contributes to rematriation ceremonies. In her painting “Sugar Loaf” she reflects on the recent return of a sacred burial site that had been disturbed by the construction of a private home in the 1990s. As the GPWS endeavors to restore the site, Silva-Dennis visualizes what the graves and surrounding landscape would look like had the desecration never occurred. 

Denise Silva-Dennis, Shinnecock, “Graves Protection Warrior Society Logo” (2021), mixed media, dimensions vary (image courtesy the artist)

The circle of stones inSugar Loaf” is repeated in the GPWS logo as part of a larger effort to document and pass on knowledge and practice of traditional burial rituals. Silva-Dennis notes that part of this process when rematriating disturbed and stolen ancestor remains and funerary artifacts involves creating new rituals as well, explaining, “There are traditional songs for when someone passes away and is buried, but there are no songs to say, ‘we’re sorry we have to rebury you because you were disturbed,’ and that is something we incorporate into our work now.”

As an artist-death doula myself, I wanted to hear how others in this dual role feel. How do these roles speak to and build on one another? I asked Mantri, Silva-Dennis, and Yoneda to share in their own words what it means to them and to their practice to be both an artist and a death worker.

Resham Mantri:

I am an artist, and I am a death doula. Part of working with and supporting those who are grieving or dying means that you know how precious and short this life is. You don’t take it for granted and you try not to let small things stop you from taking your dreams seriously every day. That is the phenomenal up side of doing deathwork: it makes me a courageous artist, for whom it’s easier not to compare myself to anyone else, or say that I am not artist enough, and encourages me to exist in the only timeline that matters — mine. To be an artist in a community with other artists means I have gathered many beautiful tools and resources to offer those who are grieving or contemplating endings and their meanings. Endings are potent material for our personal and collective becoming and, as it turns out, for art as well. Not necessarily for the type of art that needs to be sold or [housed] in a museum. But truly the only kind of art that really matters, the kind that saves us. Giving grieving people permission to access an art practice is a gift that death doula-artists often get to offer and witness. Having an art practice has saved me personally, which is why I believe in it and bring it to my death practice. Art making is just one way of many through which we can transmute the unimaginable weight of loss into other forms — another way to remind us of our magical aliveness.

Denise Silva-Dennis:

For me personally, as an artist and death worker, it gives me great satisfaction to do my part to honor my Shinnecock ancestors along with ancient Indigenous remains from other areas on Turtle Island. As a child, my mother, Loretta Hunter-Silva, taught all of her children that Shinnecock Hills is our ancient burial place. When those sacred lands were stolen in 1859 by Southampton Town proprietors and the State of New York, many remains and sacred burial objects were dug up, and sold off to museums for display and private collectors to study. It has become my life’s mission to help facilitate the return of our ancient people and their burial objects to our homelands by serving on the Boards of Graves Protection Warrior Society, Niamuck Land Trust, and Peconic Land Trust. My painted landscapes depict the most sacred Sugar Loaf burial site. In one piece, in the sky I’ve added faces of Shinnecock ancestors who are now in the spirit world, watching over in approval.

Eliana Yoneda:

An awareness of and relationship with death invites me to dive deeper into the present moment and inspires me to create lasting artifacts with the ephemeral. It creates a way of stretching and playing with the concept of time and the truth of growth and aging. My art and creation then become a conversation with my own mortality and a way to outlive myself. I believe that to create is to feel, tactilely, fully, that we are here on this planet now, moving, making our own marks on history no matter how big or small. I bring this awareness into the relationships I form with elders, from legacy projects to day-to-day storytelling and memory sharing. I encourage them to view the simple fact of their existence as a kind of art, a precious creation. I hope to empower them to share their creation(s), so that we may celebrate and participate in the gift of their life.

In my own dual practice, I frame my artwork as an entry point into difficult conversations, encouraging exhibition visitors and workshop participants to consider their own end-of-life wishes and how they would feel most comforted in grief. As a part of each project, I believe it’s important to share resources for further death education and I’ve included a few deathcare organizations below supporting efforts toward a good death for everyone.

I am a proud alumna of the Going with Grace End-of-Life Training Program, which offers a variety of courses, workshops, and educational opportunities for the next generation of death doulas, hospice workers, nurses, doctors, and all who support deathcare. The course is open to anyone interested in deepening and healing their relationship with death, regardless of any other goals related to deathwork. In addition to formal services, they host a directory to find death doulas by state and an online educational community.

The Collective for Radical Death Studies is an incredible resource for decolonizing the broader death studies field. One of their prominent offerings is an online gathering called Rad Death Reads, organized by monthly themes including “Grief at the Intersection of Social Justice,” “African American Deathways & Deathwork,” and “Decolonizing Disability and Death Studies.” Their work is rooted in scholarly research that is accessible to fellow scholars and the general public alike.

The Order of the Good Death offers robust online resources that demystify funerary processes and death anxieties while also advocating for equitable, eco-friendly burial options through national legislation and calls to action. Their content comes in a variety of formats, including books, articles, YouTube videos, and podcasts, and breaks down the complexity of end-of-life planning into manageable and actionable steps, often with a bit of humor, and most importantly with transparency about the funeral industry.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the 2023/24 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and the second of three posts by the authorthe third of which will be an online exhibition published on Hyperallergic and sent to all newsletter subscribers. 

Brianna L. Hernández will discuss her work and research in an online event moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Tuesday, March 5, at 6pm (EST). RSVP to attend.

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