The art of dying gracefully

DENMARK artists James Gentle and Ruth Maddren have been commissioned by the City of Albany and the WA Primary Health Alliance to produce a community arts project and exhibition based on the theme Permission to Die.

The project is part of the Compassionate Communities program, which encourages communities to think and talk openly about death. The artists’ inspiration came from their association with Margaret Whittle, a Denmark resident who passed away in 2016.

‘Margaret’s proactive approach to her death was unique,’ Ruth said. ‘The awkwardness and hesitation around me having conversations with people who were terminally ill or had lost a loved one has been my own fear of how to approach them.

‘Margaret gave people permission to discuss her plans and involve her community in preparing for her death.’

James got to know Margaret at the end of her life because of the way she went about dying. Her coffin was made by a local carpenter, and she used it as a bookshelf while she was alive. At her funeral James towed the coffin on a small trailer with a tricycle from the Denmark Tip Shop.

Margaret planned a living wake which contained ritual that was meaningful to her and connected her with close friends and community members while she lived.

‘Margaret inspires us as a person who not only faced her death creatively but who gave her community a fantastic chance to deepen their connection with her before she passed – some for the first time,’ Ruth said. ‘We see it as important in this project to give people a space to talk and share, so that death isn’t such a taboo.’

James and Ruth will run hands-on art and craft workshops for the community during June and July, and Permission to Die will be shown at Albany’s Vancouver Arts Centre in August.

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