Death Becomes Her is a group exhibition on view at BRIC in the Main Gallery, co-curated and in partnership with The Green-Wood Cemetery. The exhibition features ten artists—Mimi Bai, Kim Brandt, Nona Faustine, Rachel Grobstein, Gyun Hur, McKendree Key*, Heidi Lau, Catalina Ouyang, Freya Powell*, and Keisha Scarville—exploring how death and the grieving process impact the living. Death Becomes Her is on view through April 19, 2020.
These ten female-identifying artists examine loss as a catalyst for self-discovery, its cultural and social associations, and the politics of death and dying. They are inspired by personal traumas, ancient myths, and historic injustices. Through their use of objects and tropes commonly associated with death (such as gravestones, flowers, and shrouds), the artists also expand the visual rhetoric of how the departed are remembered.
The importance of these explorations, and their broader social and cultural implications, are highlighted in the conversation between co-curators Jenny Gerow and Harry Weil, and Amy Cunningham, a licensed funeral director and The Green-Wood Cemetery’s death educator, published in the Death Becomes Her brochure. The version included in the brochure was edited for legnth, the full interview can be read below.
Jenny Gerow & Harry Weil: As a funeral director, you’ve worked with grieving persons of different religions and traditions, what in your experience is the biggest misconception about grieving or mourning?
Amy Cunningham: First, that they are the same thing. Bereavement experts differentiate grief, the inward emotion that arises following a death, from mourning, which is the outward act, ritual or process by which grief finds expression and is manifest.
The next big misunderstood thing is this: there’s really no end to grief and your mourning rituals don’t have to stop at any set time. Your sadness after a loss may lighten or get redistributed, but it will never vanish completely. Closing grief out or shutting it down isn’t even a good aim. Queen Victoria, after all, had servants place Albert’s clothes on his bed every morning for the rest of her life. She liked the idea of him being around and all set.
The big deaths in your life won’t come to a tidy conclusion. An elderly woman whose beloved husband died early once told me: “Honey, you never get over it. You just get with it.” And that’s about right. You will move beyond this, but it’s a sacred wisdom you now carry that will feed and nourish you—as a person, thinker, and creator. Pushing grief off to the side won’t work. It’s best to get inside of it, process it, create from it, and move on from there with an enriched perspective.
JG & HW: You’ve written about the ceremonies you’ve witnessed, do any stand out as being particularly poignant?
AC: All end-of-life ceremonies are powerfully poignant in one way or another. Everyone should attend as many funerals as they can in the spirit of being a complete human being.
I’m always uplifted by the music and spirit of African American “homegoings,” for instance. Tibetan Buddhist funerals are amazing because the deceased person is kept in bed for as long as three days, with monks in their saffron robes chanting. I have watched in amazement as a dead man’s body, in Hindu tradition, was covered in his casket with hundreds of orange marigolds. Jewish burials are simple but dramatic when family members carry out the cathartic task of shoveling soil into the grave to cover the pine casket. Quakers stand in silence in the presence of their dead, then spontaneously read a poem, or sing, or tell a story. They are among the leaders in the movement to keep funerals simple, humble and earth-friendly.
But the beauty of a good funeral service springs from individual creative, internal work as much as faith or custom. I once saw a son kiss his deceased mother’s cheek and say, “there, I did it. You never let me express my affection.” At another service, a woman’s eulogy morphed into an agonizing public therapy session that seemed to hold her family hostage. I experienced someone chastise all the funeral guests for not visiting when the deceased mom had been in better health. More poignantly, I watched in admiring silence as an 87-year-old widow, who was a Unitarian, accompanied her husband’s casket to the cremation chamber with the demeanor of a mother seeing her young son off to kindergarten.
JG & HW: Religious or secular, plain or fancy, what’s the common thread in paying homage and saying goodbye? Within every funeral, is there a shared desire?
AC: Oh yes, absolutely! The common goal is to pay tribute to the dead person, honor the life, find meaning and virtue in the face of whatever it is—a suicide, accident, crippling disadvantage, still birth, old age, or illness. Within every funeral experience, opportunities are provided for the family and closest friends to fall apart then get it back together. Grief can be transformative, but it must be permitted to do its work. There needs to be a setting, or a reading, or an alchemic moment or risk—touching the body, carrying the casket, rising to the podium to speak your truth. The funeral ritual is generally a launching pad to the ensuing grieving year, that’s why funerals are important.
JG & HW: You’ve said that after a death “you still have to dip into reality and not ignore the fact that [someone] is absent.” What have you found to be the greatest struggle in acknowledging that absence?
AC: Well, you can’t just have a party, right? You can’t only celebrate their life with wine and cheese. Fewer people today are on a religious conveyor belt, the clergy are no longer in charge of the show. As more yoga, meditation, and theories on what constitutes good health abound, ritual mourning customs momentarily and ironically were tossed out the window without any replacement strategy. The religious templates for death observance were seen as useless to the deeply secular and out of bounds to the unchurched.
And even now, nobody really wants to spend too much money on a funeral. People are scared they’ll get ripped off. Making matters worse, the funeral industry doesn’t have the best reputation. So consumers today phone the funeral home to say, “Well, since Dad wasn’t religious, we’re just going to cremate him very simply. We’ll have a memorial service with food and music next summer, when we all feel better.” I’m fine with that—people should get what they want—but again, the death of the body must be acknowledged.
Inwardly, I’m always rooting for deeper acknowledgement, a creative hands-on ritual with the dead or some representation of the soul in the room, which is where designers and artists like those in this show, including Heidi Lau or Nona Faustine, come in. Is the body just an empty, used-up shell? What are our obligations to those we love? How do we express gratitude, or begin to move on? Can we make death less a medical event and more of a communal experience again? Where do lofty, therapeutic, life-affirming endeavors like creating works of art fit in?
JG & HW: Along with the Death Positive Movement do you see a shift in conversations around death? What do you attribute to this renewed interest in the mourning process?
AC: A post-9/11 generation has come of age with a drive to understand life’s impermanence. Simultaneously, Baby Boomers are aging out and facing their bad knees and plantar fasciitis. The suicide rate is rising. Many people are grieving the demise of our planet and wildlife species. So after avoiding death talk at the dinner table, a lot of people can’t hold it back any longer. Artists preoccupied with these themes want to scream it out, and women like me—lots of them younger—are flooding into the funeral business, saying “What the hell has been going on here?” So many folks are in pain. It’s time we sought earth-friendly, scientifically-backed solutions—sustainable methods and products, real world bereavement support, creative hands-on involvement. Art that blasts truth to the universe! We came, we loved, we honor, and remember. We tried to make and not break stuff.
JG & HW: What rituals have you seen or led that are the most impactful?
AC: Any action that is courageous or creative and alerts you to the wisdom you now hold in the face of death is a good thing: touching the body, sitting at the bedside, keeping the deceased around for awhile if you can (I supervise funerals in the home), thoughtfully selecting the clothes a deceased person might wear, processing to the final resting place in a respectful, focused way, giving a eulogy, playing music, asking to help carry the casket, shoveling the soil at a burial, witnessing the casket's entry into the cremation chamber, touching the ashes (which are pulverized bones). Whatever the approach, rituals work well when they are creatively yours and when they bring you fully into the room. Rituals help us remain alert to what is, rituals empower. Turning your pain after a loss into art, that's the final act of love, isn't it?
Death's presence puts us in a liminal time and space, nothing is the old normal now. Our society may beg us to return to our old routines, our offices want us to fulfill all our prior commitments, but creative grieving practice that puts everything else on hold is healthy. The resulting realizations and artwork remind us to stay in touch with our aliveness.
JG & HW: You seem like a sunny, optimistic person. How does that square with arranging funerals for others and being Green-Wood's death educator?
AC: I feel I've found myself by contemplating life's impermanence, and I'm not alone. I meet hospice workers, hospital chaplains, funeral directors, cemetery workers and artists who are so powerfully fulfilled and inspired by their work around death. We are of instrumental assistance to others during what is often the worst time of their lives. It's stressful, yes, and you can suffer from compassion fatigue for sure, but end-of-life work and contemplation, whatever it is, is life-affirming. It wakes you up. The contemplation of death is a healthy practice—as noted by the tenets of many religious traditions.
In addition to the funerals I help to manage, I lead workshops at Green-Wood on the fascinating history of cremation, how to green up your funeral, how to write a good condolence letter or give a great eulogy—all with the same uplifted spirit. We need to process loss from a new perspective. I'm showing folks pictures of gorgeous green burials, families decorating caskets, things that they thought they couldn't withstand. But they see the beauty and may begin to think "Hey, that's fascinating. I see new possibilities."
I try to help others feel brave in death's presence. I want them to do more and see more, live creatively, find the artist in themselves. I firmly believe that grief is wisdom. Grief and mourning practice clearly inspired the artists in Death Becomes Her to find an outlet and create something new, I love that.
If you're interested in learning more about The Green-Wood Cemetery, Amy Cunningham, and the Death Positive Movement, check out these videos:
ABOUT THE GREEN-WOOD CEMETERY
Founded in 1838 and now a National Historic Landmark, Green-Wood was one of the first rural cemeteries in America. Spread across 478 spectacular acres of hills, valleys, glacial ponds and paths, the Cemetery boasts one of the largest outdoor collections of 19th- and 20th-century statuary and mausoleums. Throughout the year, visitors are welcomed to explore Green-Wood through art installations, concerts, book readings, outdoor film screenings, death education programs, and tours.