The Art of Dying
Death is the one inevitability of life. Although many of us try not to think about it, we will all have to face death one day. How do we as a society think about death? In healthcare, death is often viewed from a clinical perspective: your heart stops beating, your brain ceases to function, and your body shuts down. Some can look at death from a religious perspective, and others can look at it from a sociocultural perspective. However, we also frequently view death through the art that we consume. Whether it is your favourite character dying in a movie or a heart-wrenching orchestral requiem, we should ask ourselves how we view death through the perspective of the art that surrounds us.
Perhaps some of the most striking depictions of death are in the paintings of Edvard Munch. While Munch is most well known for his ghostly painting The Scream, paintings such as Death Struggle, designed in 1915, show his nuanced ability to depict despair, loss, and mourning through his artwork. Interestingly, viewing death through the creation of visual art pieces has actually been found to positively support learning about loss, suffering, and death. In an article by Johnson & Jackson, it was found that creating pieces of artwork through sculpting or painting can be used to successfully help undergraduate nursing students gain confidence in their approach to palliative care and help them explore new perspectives on death and dying (1).
Edvard Munch. (1915). Death Struggle.
Death is also an inherent aspect of many of the films that we watch. Jack sinking below the waves in The Titanic, Mufasa getting trampled in a stampede of wildebeests in The Lion King, and the Wicked Witch of the West melting in The Wizard of Oz are all some examples of the memorable deaths that we witness in film. It is no surprise that the portrayal of death in movies is often sensationalized and tends to promote misconceptions about death, but films can also play a crucial role in understanding society’s attitudes toward death. In a paper by Niemiec and Schulenberg, the argument was made that movies are a means of positively influencing death attitudes to increase the acceptance of death and decrease death anxiety (2). The authors identify movies like Forrest Gump, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Cast Away as examples of films that portray the strength of self-regulation, gratitude, and a positive outlook under extreme circumstances as positive traits to adopt when faced with death (2).
We end off with the perspective of death in music. Pieces with powerful and despairing instrumentation like Requiem in D minor by Mozart and songs with moving lyrics like See You Again by Wiz Khalifa are just some examples of how death is portrayed in the music we listen to. Music has also been found to play a role in supporting patients, healthcare workers, and families of patients in the death and dying process in a clinical setting. Holm and colleagues explored this idea in a focus-group study and found that music may play a beneficial role in the process of after-death care and when caring for relatives of deceased individuals (3).
Exploring the intersection between art and death can provide us with an invaluable perspective to navigate the certainty of dying. By engaging with the many different forms of art available to us, we as a society can begin to view death less as a fixed certainty, but as a complex phenomenon that we will all experience through different lenses.
Johnson A, Jackson D. Using the arts and humanities to support learning about loss, suffering, and death. Int J Palliat Nurs [Internet]. 2005;11(8): 438-443. Available from: https://doi.org/10.12968/ijpn.2005.11.8.19614
Niemiec RM, Schulenberg SE. Understanding Death Attitudes: The Integration of Movies, Positive Psychology, and Meaning Management. Death Studies [Internet]. 2011;35(5): 387-407. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2010.544517
Holm MS, Falun N, Gjengedal E, Norekval TM. Music during after-death care: a focus group study. Nurs Crit Care [Internet]. 2012;17(6): 302-308. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1478-5153.2012.00525.x