SANTA FE, New Mexico — How do you have a conversation about death? In our tendency to avoid thinking about our own mortality we often deliberately ignore this defining fact of life until it’s at our doorstep, when we are least prepared to look at it with a clear head. Try broaching this subject with other people and you’ll likely find yourself shut down with a brusque, “That’s a little morbid, isn’t it?”
So how do people have an honest, open, rational conversation about death? CFile’s own Justin Crowe, a ceramist, thinks he has found a way. In October he completed Nourish, a dinnerware set glazed with the powdered bones of the deceased. Equipped with his own knowledge of bone China and 200 bones he purchased from medical supply and oddity dealers on the Internet, Crowe found a way to engage people in the oft-avoided, almost taboo topic of mortality. Once his dinner set was complete, he invited eight of his friends to a meal, hoping that his collection would trigger one of these rare conversations.
Video Credit: Morgan Capps and Ash Haywood
As his dinner guests ate pork loin, quinoa salad and asparagus, they began to talk about mortality and death rituals. What does it mean to respect the deceased? what defines respect? how do different cultures approach their own funeral rituals?
“It was really beautiful,” Crowe said. “It’s a conversation we don’t typically have. To create objects that foster that conversation was one of my goals. (My guests’ attitudes) ranged from sarcastic to really thoughtful and analytical. The mood was never dark. It was never grim. It was a very candid exploration of different viewpoints.”
Crowe thinks the experiment was a success in part because of the ritual nature of sharing a meal combined with the unique character of the dinner service. Taken together, the two set the table, so to speak, for the conversation that follows.
And though, as you’re sure to see if you read the comment sections in articles about Crowe’s work, the dinner service can inspire kneejerk reactions of revulsion, perhaps it’s this close engagement with the deceased that we lack in our culture. We cannot avoid death, so we attempt to sterilize it. Many people die in hospitals and not in their homes. Funerals used to take place in the homes of friends and families, but now that job has been replaced by the funeral home industry. Funeral homes all approximate houses because they recall the nearly extinct tradition of holding a wake in a family member’s house. Death rituals that used to require the deliberate attention and engagement of the survivors have been farmed out to third parties.
I believe this serves to make the vacuum of death even wider, to make it more alien and unknowable. Perhaps our tendency to sterilize death arrests our ability to deal with it, making an already grim fact of life even worse. We cannot avoid our own mortality, but we can attempt to mediate our fear through engagement, through community, through being honest and vulnerable with our friends and family.
And the deceased? What about them? My mother told me once that funerals are not for the dead, they’re for the living. By honoring the dead we preserve some of their vitality and wrap it into our own lives. In this way, the lives of the deceased continue, even if they’re not around to participate.
Here’s where the theme of engagement returns. Crowe tells me he was inspired to create the set when his grandfather died in his home. The domesticity of his grandfather’s passing remained with Crowe, who described it as both mundane and sacred at the same time. Nourish and Crowe’s commercial extension of that project, Chronicle Cremation Designs, are an attempt to recreate that feeling for others.
Chronicle Cremation Designs will take the ashes of loved ones and turn them into ceramic artifacts, such as cremation jewelry, coffee cups, luminaries, cremation urns and more. Crowe says that survivors are often left with nothing more than a symbol of the deceased, such as a photograph, a headstone or a dusty urn occupying a spot on the mantle. His designs allow one to engage with a loved one as life moves on. A cup of coffee could be shared with your grandfather. A luminary can continue providing your mother’s warmth and light. True, these people are gone, but Crowe’s designs are far less abstract than our dominant rituals surrounding death. Sensations such as heat, the smoothness of the glaze, light, and weight create a materiality to the deceased, and in a small but profound way they anchor the dead in the life they left behind.
Bill Rodgers is the Managing Editor of cfile.daily.
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