Over dinner with a friend, nearly a month ago, I pondered over the connections between creativity and death. She had just watched a movie about a Japanese man who took a job assisting with death rites, and our conversation spiraled into a deep, organic interplay exploring our personal experiences and cultural messages about the end of life.
I think about death often. I am sure it comes from having lost my mother just as I turned 21. My perspective on life was shaped by her death, my grief, and faded memories of our time together.
Every culture has values they assign to the idea of dying. For my family, death was the kind of painful thing whose sting stays around for decades. As a child, I remember my grandfather’s death haunting my mother and her sisters. Death wounds us; it is silent, but very present. These were my first messages about the end of life.
This message has been delivered in both subtle and overt ways. Once, when personally faced with the possibility of grave illness, my imagination began to dance around what I might like my funeral to be like. As I shared this with a friend, I was gently reprimanded for focusing on the dying rather than the living. I knew there was some wisdom in her words, and so I felt my interest must have been skewed. I tried, then, to push my thoughts out of my mind.
A similar message was given to me about death when an American minister who I was traveling with in Mexico told me that he thought the Mexican culture was obsessed with death. As a child and an teenager, I grew up in a community that included a brilliantly strong Latino culture, but I was somewhat isolated from much of it. A few years after losing my mother I was introduced to the tradition of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a festival which yearly honors the place death has in life. Was this what the minister had referred to? I found myself inspired by the freedom of the celebration, but wondered if that meant that I too was obsessed. Obsessed or not, I began building ofrendas (memory altars) for my mother and exploring my relationship with La Muerta.
That night with my friend, as we discussed the nature of death in life, I made a small confession which I have since held like a trinket in my pocket, turning it over, examining it in hopes of getting to know myself better. My secret? I am fascinated with death rites.
For some, that may not seem extreme enough to warrant secrecy, but somewhere in my upbringing, there grew a line between living and dying where one should not allow their creativity to go.
As I made my confession about my interest in death to my friend over dinner the other night, I felt something very alive in me. My vitality peaked in the presence of creative thoughts about death. My imagination soared.
Now I am not a stranger to death rites. I have spoken at funerals, performed at them, created altars (ofrendas) to honor those who have passes, and helped others to pass from this life to another. But I still wrestle with fully claiming an interest in this somewhat taboo subject. Perhaps the thing that felt so subversive was the enthusiasm with which I talked about death. Should one talk about death with great interest? Again, there is that wall.
I remembered a dear mentor of mine, Sue Finley, who directed me in a number of plays in college. She was my teacher in that year when I lost my mother, and she graciously gave me feed back and encouragement for a sign language performance of The Rose for my mother’s funeral. There were some who thought my performance was bizarre, even to the extent that they tried to talk our conservative German minister from allowing me to perform it. But Mrs. Finley never missed a beat, she validated my self-expression, a gesture I have been forever grateful for.
Mrs. Finley died a few years after my mother did. She fought a brave battle with cancer, and although I did not get to attend her service, I understand it were quite a production. It began with a more somber tone and ended with a full-fledged Dixieland procession. Orchestrating her own good-bye party meant that she crossed over that line. Even in life, she could accompany her creativity into her death.
I have been absent from my blog for a few weeks now. I have missed this space, but my absence has been good for me. In that time, I have been busy with my family. I have marked the passing of my cousin and my husband’s great aunt. Two deaths in as many weeks. Another reason death rites are on my mind.
As the dust settles from the whirlwind of grief vigils, I find that I want to huddle up with my thoughts about death and dissect them bit by bit. Before me are layers of loss bound up with thick strands of messages about what is acceptable or not. My desire to be authentic is the tool which calls me to pull the mass apart. What rests at its core? I wonder.