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Behind the Scenes: ‘Art of Death’ events focus on end-of-life issues

Ashley Benem, 45, is a practicing death midwife in Whatcom County who comes from a long history of healing work. She has worked on an ambulance off and on for 17 years, has been a practicing licensed massage therapist for 14 years and has been a counselor and minister the last five years.

She also has worked intensely as an advocate for birthing women as a birth doula and pregnancy specialist in bodywork for years. That passion for being a support during a major transition, she says, has lead her to work with the dying.

On Thursday, Oct. 2, “The Art of Death: Shifting the Way We Look at Death,” a multifaceted event that includes films, workshops, music, performances and exhibits, kicks off at 5 p.m. at Pickford Film Center, 1318 Bay St.

The idea came to Benem when she saw what she says was a powerful art installation by Scott Kolbo at a gallery in Anacortes. The piece is the featured piece for “The Art of Death” exhibit at The Majestic on North Forest Street, with events planned around the exhibit for Oct. 10 and 11.

Benem says she thought if people could see the piece, it would start their minds thinking about their beliefs and knowledge about end-o-life issues.

“Nothing accesses our opinions, our beliefs and our emotions like the arts,” she says. “It is also the fastest way for us to begin to reconstruct our beliefs and opinions about any subject.”

So, Benem says, the thought of having an art show that focused on death and dying as a transition was born. The “little art show,” she says, grew by public demand into over a week of offerings around end-of-life choices.

Events continue through Oct. 11, and it’s all coordinated by Benem, with support from many agencies in Whatcom County, including Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement, Northwest Regional Council, the Green Burial Council, Whatcom Hospice, Moles Farewell Tributes, Compassion & Choices, Death Cafe at the Center for Spiritual Living, The Leopold and Pickford Film Center, among others.

There will be three to four offerings a day, including a film festival of informative documentaries; presentations; and workshops covering such topics as legal preparations, grief work through poetry; how to write a death plan (much like a birth plan), and how to prepare yourself and the ones around you for the inevitable.

Benem says current practices of dying in the United States are protocol-based.

“We have taken the family and the care for the dying and dead out of our hands and have given that responsibility over to the authorities,” she says. “We have countless books, reports and studies to show us how that practice is not healthy. ... Being part of our own and our loved ones’ death and dying process is truly the most natural and healing thing we can do.”

It’s her belief that if people bring a broader awareness of the options they have on end-of-life choices, they can make better, more-informed decisions.

That’s what she says she’s’ hoping for with “The Art of Death” - to bring more information to the public.

Event celebrates life of Tom Ward

And on that note, family and friends of Tom Ward, a former chairman of the theater arts department at Western Washington University who died in 2012, have planned a celebration of life for their father at 1 p.m. Oct. 11 at Whatcom Middle School.

Ward taught drama at WWU for more than 25 years. The last play he directed there was “Look Homeward, Angel.”

People who wish to pay tribute to Ward are encouraged to share stories, photos or other momentoes. For details, email Adam at

At Pickford Film Center, October translates as “Doctober,” with a wealth of documentaries, short features, comedies and more playing at both Pickford, 1318 Bay St., and at Limelight Cinema, 1416 Cornwall Ave.

This year, Pickford has received funding that allows about 25 middle-school and high-school classes to see some of the films for free, says Pickford’s executive director, Susie Purves. Details:, 360-647-1300 or 360-738-0735.