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Art of Death focuses on planning, talking about end of life

Brian Flowers, green burial coordinator for Moles Farewell Tributes-Greenacres, will be among the presenters at the Art of Death conference, which begins Friday, Oct. 2, in Bellingham. In green burials, bodies aren’t embalmed in toxic chemicals and what they’re buried in must be biodegradable.
Brian Flowers, green burial coordinator for Moles Farewell Tributes-Greenacres, will be among the presenters at the Art of Death conference, which begins Friday, Oct. 2, in Bellingham. In green burials, bodies aren’t embalmed in toxic chemicals and what they’re buried in must be biodegradable. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Death and dying will be wrapped into art in Bellingham during October.

In its second year, the Art of Death conference will give people more of a chance to learn and talk about a natural process that’s usually taboo in this culture.

The conference begins Friday, Oct. 2, and offers classes, workshops, presentations, concerts, a film festival, a play and more.

The first event, called “The Realities of Advanced Medical Interventions,” is at 9 a.m. Friday.

Most events occur through Oct. 11, with a “Dying Wise” presentation by Stephen Jenkinson on Oct. 22.

More than 500 people attended the conference in its first year.

Ashley Benem, a death midwife, has organized the conference both years and talked to The Bellingham Herald about it.

What did you learn the first year?

There was a question about whether people would want to go to something called the Art of Death. They did.

“A lot of people came and they all wanted to talk about death,” Benem said of 2014, adding that people had a lot of curiosity and wanted to share their stories.

“We’re walking in this year knowing that people have this story to share,” she said.

What will be featured?

Events range from the practical to the inspirational, with art as the opening into death and dying.

“I’m a death midwife. Our job, basically, is to educate people and to help them get ready for their end of life,” Benem said.

There are sessions on caskets, baskets and shrouds; death with dignity laws; making an advance care directive; green burials; and the Urban Death Project.

There are a number of documentaries, including “Vultures of Tibet,” and a black comedy in the Art of Death film festival; a session from those who sing and play music for people at the end of their lives; memorial carving for men; afternoon tea with the Whatcom County Death Cafe; a class on writing about death; and stories for children about death and loss.

“We are looking at all walks of life because we’re all affected by this,” Benem said.

Some events are free. And some require registration.

Most events will be in the Fireside Room at the Fairhaven Library, 1117 12th St.

Go to the Oct. 1 Take Five or online at artofdeathexpo.com/presenters for a schedule of events.

Who should go?

“Everybody. We’re all going to die. It’s not just for the elderly or the sick. It’s about everyone. At 35, you don’t know when your end might come It’s a good idea to know what those options are.”

Why did you refer to age 35?

“We tend to be rather invincible (at that age). At least I thought I was when I was 35. You haven’t hit that middle-age thing and everything’s feeling really awesome in your life, for most folks, at that point. Death is the last thing most folks are thinking about at that time.”

Benem hopes the conference will help prepare people for “a completely natural process that we’re all going to go through.”

“We have just kind of forgotten how.”

Why do you think that is?

The first reason: Because American culture is focused on being beautiful, rich and seemingly immortal.

“Death is not really in that picture,” she said.

Neither is aging, especially family patterns that now have grandparents living far away and then going into rest homes — further removing what is a part of life from the mainstream.

“That takes us out of that process,” Benem said. “It’s not something we value at this time in our country.”

The second reason: We’ve given over our end-of-life care and how we work with the dying to those in the medical field because they’re seen as the experts.

“It might as well be magic for most people because we don’t understand what is happening in the medical system most of the time,” Benem said.

If time is limited, what event shouldn’t be missed?

The main event, called “The Web We Weave,” at the Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher Building, 250 Flora St., at 6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 10.

It’s a dance and spoken word performance meant to show the struggle people face as they enter the end of life. The event will include keynote speaker Swil Kanim, a Lummi storyteller and classically trained violinist.

The cost is $10 for adults, $8 for students and seniors, free for children younger than 10. Buy tickets at the Community Food Co-Op and at the door.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

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