Making & Dying

Fear and dread are difficult to get close to — their nature is to push away, repel, send you running in the other direction. I know that during times when I’m fearing or dreading something in the future, creating something, even a meal, can put a familiar texture on what I am feeling, letting me get a grip on it, examine it, understand it, and finally let it go.

A lot of the time we need to touch the things that frighten us through our favorite medium — wearing painting or language or comics or music like a protective glove — in order to get close enough to understand them. Making something as a way of approaching and understanding death — I’m not an art historian, and I’m not an archaeologist either, but isn’t this what humans have always been doing?

A few projects I came across lately reminded me of this basic human impulse to create: “thoughts in passing,” “Flat Death,” and various death apps, which let you collect and pass along your digital identity, so loved ones get all of your usernames and passwords without having to sift through your desk drawers.

To make “thoughts in passing,” Claudia Biçen met with people who were dying in hospice care to talk with them about their lives — “their refections, regrets and lessons.” These interviews, along with photographs of the patients, were the basis for pencil portraits of nine of the patients.

“If I learned any one lesson from my conversations,”Biçen reflects, “it is that meaning does not come from consumption, but creation. The meaningful life is one that gives more than it takes.”

A different project, Flat Death, looks at death through the lens of photography and photographic images. Photography is an important tool in forensics; we also take photographs of our recently dead, embalmed loved ones, to help us remember them — or maybe it’s an image of them that we want to remember?

Then there are death apps. Death apps “help people give their loved ones unconditional control of all of their online accounts by digitally transmitting their account passwords to them, post-mortem. Online banking, digital newspaper subscription and online shopping accounts are all scooped up by death apps…”. One app, Afternote, lets you make a photomontage of your life. And there are sites like Gyst, where you can do all of your end-of-life planning, completing and storing your will, advanced directive, and other documents telling others how you want to die, and how you want to be remembered after you die.

(Personally I’m wary of death apps — I think they feed our already unreasonable expectation that we should be able to manage every bit of data our existence generates. If the way we approach death reflects our fears about life, then these apps say a lot about our current neurosis for “having it all together” (and also collect personal data in the servers of companies we don’t know whether we can trust). But maybe you just want to leave something behind, and no way in particular to do that has presented itself yet — then maybe there is something to be had from one of these apps.)

Making, organizing, and dying — each can be a mode of remembering, remembering others and ourselves.