How my two days with Death were unforgettably amazing

Death Salon at the Mutter Museum

Death and mortality are such great topics to explore both in creative expression and in mindfulness practices, don’t you think? And what better time to dwell on the subject than the Halloween season!

Last week Connor and I spent two days in Philadelphia with a couple hundred of our fellow deathlings at the Death Salon. This was an event put together by the Order of the Good Death and hosted by the Mütter Museum.

Salon "mascot" - David Orr photo
Salon “mascot” – David Orr photo

Topics ranged from forensic pathology, to ancient and modern death rituals, to museum conservation of mummies, to medical preparations/models, to death-related social issues, to death in art. There was truly something for everyone and every single presenter – whether from academia, the medical world, the funeral industry or a private citizen with unique interests – was passionate, knowledgeable and highly respectful of their topic.

I am probably the nerdiest nerd in the world, but I was actually sad each time we took a break. I could  have listened to some of the speakers for hours. Every topic was fascinating and thought-provoking.

Plus, as a bonus, we got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Mütter Museum’s collection, and – holy medical pathology! – it was SO COOL.

Death Salon was by far the best event I’ve attended… well… maybe EVER.

Mutter Museum Medicinal Plant Garden
Mutter Museum Medicinal Plant Garden

When I told people I was going, reactions ranged from “oh, COOL!” to “you’re attending WHAT kind of conference??” I’ve been asked before: What is your fascination with death? A long time ago, I don’t think I could have answered that question very articulately. But these days, I know the answer:

I’m not fascinated with death. I’m fascinated with LIFE.

Mutter Museum Garden Statue
Mutter Museum Garden Statue

Without the loss that is inseparable from death, it can be challenging to appreciate life. And we are all touched by death. No matter how much we shield ourselves, stuff our frightened emotions, shudder at the ick factor… just as we are born, the only thing we can count on is that we will one day die.

In the U.S. at least, death is surrounded by fear, aversion and taboos. People who are interested in death are often regarded as morbid or counter-culture weirdos. Goth on the tame end of the spectrum; Jeffrey Dahmer on the really twisted end.

Even if we get past the cultural biases, death is just plain scary because we don’t know what comes next. Sure, people find comfort in the beliefs of their faith, but no one has incontrovertible evidence of what happens after we take that last breath.

From a personal perspective, I don’t think I’m scared of dying. (although staring the Grim Reaper in the face, I might tell a different story) I would be really disappointed if I dropped dead tomorrow but there is a certain mystery and appeal to nothingness.

After years of meditation practice, I imagine that dying is something like the fleeting void that appears for a second or two during meditation. A moment of utter peace and calm – wouldn’t it be delightful to stay in that place always instead of having it snatched away by my monkey mind?

Exploded skull and other preparations
Exploded skull & other preparations by Ryan Matthew Cohn

Of course, who knows what happens when we die?

The beautiful void is just what I’m imagining and I could be so completely wrong. Like I said, the fear of the unknown is probably what makes many people uncomfortable with the topic of death.

The thing that scares me the most about death is the loss of loved ones. I take a practical position on this: it’s quite likely that there are no worries for the dead. It’s the living that really have so much to contend with.

It’s a lovely idea to me that we can carry our memories of our loved ones with us always. But knowing that death will take someone from me and I will never see them again fills me with such anxiety and dread.

This is where creativity comes to the rescue.

Writing and expressions of creativity are how I have learned to process loss. In general terms, making things can give us a purpose when we are unsure what to do with ourselves. It also gives us an outlet for expressing the fear, grief, sadness, regret, guilt… whatever is tied up in the loss. Not to mention, some of the most beautiful tributes to lost loved ones are born of the healing qualities of creativity.

Dr. Paul Koudounaris
Dr. Paul Koudounaris

I’ve got some ideas rumbling around for exploring more on the topic – most notably how creativity helps us through loss. But also how mindfulness plays a role in our day-to-day relationship with our own mortality and losses.

In the meantime, I highly recommend Caitlin Doughty’s book Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory. It’s what originally led me to the Order of the Good Death, and ultimately my attendance at the Death Salon.

I’m also currently reading The Death Class: a True Story About Life by Erika Hayasaki, which I learned about at the event. The book is about Dr. Norma Bowe – who was one of the Death Salon speakers – and the course she teaches on death at Kean College in New Jersey. It is an amazing, and well-told, story.

Mutter exterior at night
Mutter exterior at night
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