Death Literacy and Celebrating the Departed

At first, you might not notice Death. You walk down Lorax Lane in Pittsboro, North Carolina, and you see vendors selling candles, rainbow jewelry, antique objects, herbs, hemp shirts, CBD oil. It looks like any other street fair. But then you notice the casket makers and their wares. A guy walks by with a vulture on his shoulder. A sign on a door advertises an entire afternoon of talks about green burial, meaningful end of life activities, and Buddhist concepts of impermanence and detachment. Still, the subtlety of the main theme driving this 3rd annual Death Faire might surprise you since death is not subtle. It is, rather, omnipresent. But this uncomfortable coupling of Death's omnipresence, on the one hand, and U.S. society's tendency to ignore death as much as possible, on the other hand, is, it turns out, what the Death Faire is all about. So while you might not notice Death at first, you will certainly leave with Death on the mind. This is a good thing.

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How we think of death, how often we think of it, and the desire held by so many to ignore it altogether culminates in the multifaceted notion of Death Literacy. Tami Schwerin, Executive Director of Abundance, NC who hosts this annual event, opened the Death Faire by remarking on the dire need for greater death literacy. We need words to talk about death with each other. We need to create spaces in which to have these conversations. We need rituals to acknowledge the various kinds of death that take place all the time. We need, basically, to stop ignoring the inevitable and, instead, to embrace the earthly fact that all humans share: the fact that one day, all of this will end.

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Joanne and I (Will) set up a table on the row of vendors and we talked about the work we do at Inviting Abundance. We also led a workshop that offered people a sense of our Creative Grief Practice and the type of philosophical ideas—about living, dying, and grieving with intention—we try to impart. These ideas harmonize with those of Schwerin: living is dying; by opening to the pain and grief of life's many deaths, we can learn more about the complexity of our finite existence. This learning requires help from the community and, ultimately, this learning helps to build a stronger, more resilient community.

While talking to people and walking the grounds of the Faire, I was reminded of the important role that art plays in this work of building death literacy and community resilience. The most potent artistic encounter I had was with an installation known as the Wind Telephone. Modeled on Itaru Sasaki's kaze no denwa, this installation consisted of a detached rotary telephone, perched on a desk and situated off in the corner of a field near the Faire's main stage. Visitors are invited to pull the diaphanous curtain around them and dial a loved one who has died. I decided to call my dad. 

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For the vast majority of my life, my father lived in a different city than me and my mother. When I moved to Seattle in 1990, this meant his home in Washington, D.C. was 3,000 miles away. The telephone played a tremendously important role in our relationship. More than that, I came to know my father through his deep voice. I spent at least a month with him in the summers, but our telephone correspondence was the lifeblood of our beautiful and strong relationship. Since his death in 2013, it is his voice I miss most. Every week or so I think, "Hey, I haven't talked to my Dad in a while. I should call him." And then I realize that I can't do that. But the wind phone made this impossible desire a bit more imaginable through its simple artistic gesture of opening up a one-way communication portal to the realm of the deceased. By highlighting this one-way communication as a healthy method for conversing with our dead dearly beloved, the Death Faire helped visitors to broaden their thinking about the kinds of conversations included in the curriculum of death literacy. Such literacy takes shape by speaking with our living relatives, friends, and colleagues; it also takes place through conversations between the living and the no-longer-living. To boost your death literacy, do as the sign suggests, “Call Your Dearly Beloved,” in whatever ways feel meaningful.

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Joanne and I want to help people create artistic gestures like this that can serve them in their time(s) of grief. By treating grief as an art of living, we are confident that every person’s inner artistic vision can rise to the surface. Once this intuitive vision surfaces, we can help a griever to whittle its form and put it into practice so that it can aid them in times of need. We're grateful to the Death Faire coordinators for making a space where we could share this work and mingle with others who are searching for meaningful conversations about death and life. If you want to tap into that conversation, please reach out to us and find out how Inviting Abundance can help you learn, think, heal, and grow.  

Related Blog Posts: Written by Will: Dead Reckoning, Practicing Hope, and How 9/11 Helped Prepare Me for Life as a Grieving Father (in Still Standing Magazine); Written by Joanne: Holding Space & Sitting with Grief, Celebrating (with) Our Dead, and Creative Grief Work

***If you attended the Death Faire, we’d love to hear what you found most interesting or compelling. Please share your impressions by leaving us a Comment below. Thanks!