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Permission to Die: Installation and Reflections

I recently viewed an installation named Permission to Die. This is a review, and some reflections on the subject.


Dying to Know Day

Death and dying have been subjects we were uncomfortable discussing in the past, and to some extent the stigma of death remains. The landmark work of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five emotional stages which those who are confronted with a terminal illness go through as their illness progresses and really opened the way for conversations about death and dying. Subsequent work has led to ‘Death Cafes’ where individuals can meet to discuss thoughts about death and dying.

One state in Australia has legalised voluntary euthanasia for individuals who have a terminal illness, and another state is currently debating legislation in Parliament. A woman suffering from terminal breast cancer has recently utilised the new legislation to end her own life – the first person to do so legally in Australia. So, the subject of death, especially in the case of terminal illness is highly topical in Australia at present.

Australia has instituted a Dying to Know Day which this year falls on August 8th – it is important to note that this day makes no comment on the voluntary euthanasia debate. The day offers opportunities for people who are dying, or who are supporting someone who is dying or is bereaved, opportunities to talk openly about their experiences. Other events are scheduled both locally and throughout Australia where people can express themselves and their feelings about death. One such event looks at ordinary objects which hold memories of loved ones who have passed away.


The Installation

Locally, artists Ruth Maddren and James Gentle received a community art grant to work with the Albany Community and develop an art space which offers the opportunity for quiet contemplation of death. Prior to the installation and exhibition, the community were invited to participate in several activities, some of which are incorporated into the installation. The first activity involved unravelling knitted jumpers, an undoing which simulates the ending of life. Later, the community were invited to crochet flowers which are displayed as part of the exhibit.

The installation includes four spaces, all clad in white and each providing an opportunity for contemplating aspects of death and dying. In the first, visitors can sit on a couch and hear the quiet sound of crying. The room is empty apart from the couch, the speakers playing sound, and empty pairs of shoes placed on the floor around the room.

In the second space a screen shows internal images of an open coffin decorated with fabric and with a pillow with a crocheted cover. At times the coffin is empty while at others it holds living people, staged as at death and burial. The quietly spoken voice of a woman talks about the approaching death of a loved one and the efforts made to prepare their coffin, and then about her own plans for death – at the hospice, with my husband holding my hand.

Next, there is a coffin, built of timber and lined with fabric – the coffin of the images in the previous space. Above the coffin flowers crocheted by the community create a huge and colourful array. Visitors to the exhibition can lie in the coffin and be photographed if they choose. I didn’t take this option.

In the final space is a book where visitors can write the thoughts and stories the display has evoked. I read the story of a stillborn child, something which is extremely difficult to understand and grieve. There were other touching notes and reflections on life and its passing.

I found the installation quiet and peaceful. It gave me the opportunity to think of the people I know who have now left through death and to consider their experiences and their readiness to leave life behind. I also thought of people I know who are unwell and having treatment for cancer – including radiotherapy and chemotherapy, or who are simply aging. A time and space for reflection and remembrance.


A Personal Story

Let me share a personal story. When I was 17 my Grandfather, who had been in poor health for about 10 years after suffering from cancer came to stay with us. My mother worked full time, so it was left to me to cook Grandpa his breakfast in the morning, to make him cups of tea and coffee throughout the day, and to organise lunch for him. I was not well at the time myself which is why I was at home (anorexia). I had a way of making coffee which was in fashion at the time. It was well before the days of cappuccino and espresso machines in Australia. We all drank instant made with powdered coffee. I used to mix the coffee powder, sugar and milk together for several minutes, adding hot water last. This resulted in a small amount of froth, and a slightly better taste.

My Grandfather’s health was gradually deteriorating, and at length he asked to be taken to hospital as he must have realized that his days were numbered. We went to visit him at the local hospital. He had decided against further treatment – he was ready to die. While we were visiting, the tea and coffee trolley were doing their rounds. Grandpa decided he would like coffee and asked that I be the one to make it as he said he liked the way I made his coffee.

That was over 40 years ago, but I still remember it vividly and am touched by his graciousness in the gift he gave me with his words.

© 2019 Nan Hewitt

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