Negotiating Mortality in Art

This post was written by Benjamin Jacob, HC Student Fellow

Recently, I listened to a recording of the Choir at King’s College, Cambridge performing Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor. As it was the first time that I had listened to a requiem mass by any composer, I looked up an English translation of the Latin lyrics.  I found the contrasting images presented in the translation to be fascinating. The work begins by speaking of “eternal rest” and “perpetual light” before quickly descending into a frightening message of the “day of wrath.” The speaker of the mass exclaims, “I groan like a guilty man. Guilt reddens my face. Spare a supplicant, O God!” This desperation finally melts into an almost joyful ending with singing of “Hosanna in the highest” to the Lord, who just minutes before, had seemed frightful and menacing.


My experience with this piece caused me profound wonder and introspection.  Besides my great envy of Mozart’s ability, even on his deathbed, to craft powerful sermons through strings and song, I wondered about the significant influence that art, in all its forms, has on our understanding of and preparation for death. My mind quickly compiled other examples of works of art that have taught me personally about my own mortality; I thought of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son, El Greco’s Burial of Count Orgaz, the morose and lonely demise in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and the transcendent, even joyful passing of Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Miserables. What pieces of art have taught you something about death and dying?


As we consider what art has to say about death, it is also enlightening to consider how our perceptions of death have changed. Within Western culture, our understanding of death has shifted dramatically. In the Medieval times, the notion of the “good death” held dominance. In his book Through the Valley of Shadows, Dr. Samuel Brown observes, “The idea behind the good death was that the deathbed was a time of moral and spiritual clarity. … The good death was at once intensely religious and melodramatic.” Death, an ever-present thought, influenced and guided much of human behavior for centuries. Brown notes, “When people came to die, they were able to create meaning. They were able to play their part in the drama centered at their passage from life to death.”


Fast forward to modern day, and advances in scientific and medical understandings of human life have pushed the fear of death into a corner. I do not mean to suggest that we no longer fear death, but I do believe that conversation about death and how to die has greatly diminished. Brown suggests that as a result of the many cultural and societal changes of the 18th and 19th centuries, “Americans [have] contained the terror of death by ignoring it until the moment of crisis, but the sanctity of death had disappeared along with its menacing presence.” Ernest Becker powerfully claims that humanity has repressed and denied the death as a way of modern life. He states, “If this fear were…constantly conscious, we should be unable to function normally. It must be properly repressed to keep us living with any modicum of comfort.”


While there is much more to be said about this topic, my focus today is how art can mediate our experience with death in beneficial ways. In this secular age, without pervasive religious beliefs uniting communities as it did previously, our societies need the power of artistic expression more than ever. And there is evidence that this need is starting to be met.


One such example is B.J. Miller. When he was a sophomore in college, Miller was accidentally electrocuted and subsequently had both legs and his forearm amputated. He struggled mightily with the psychological trauma of losing so much of his ability to move and live. Unable to fulfill his previous plan of studying foreign relations, he changed his major to art history.  While studying art, he found solace and guidance in his concerns about his mortality. He “remembers looking at slides of ancient sculptures in a dark lecture hall, all of them missing arms or noses or ears, and suddenly recognizing them for what they were: fellow amputees…. Time’s effect on these marble bodies — their suffering, really — was understood as part of the art.” Art helped Miller understand his bodily decay and profoundly directed the course of his life. Miller, after becoming a doctor, founded the Zen Hospice Project and is now considered a pioneer in changing modern medical attitudes toward death and dying. Miller “now talks about his recovery as a creative act, ‘a transformation,’ and argues that all suffering offers the same opportunity, even at the end of life, which gradually became his professional focus. ‘Parts of me died early on,’ he said in a recent talk. ‘And that’s something, one way or another, we can all say. I got to redesign my life around this fact, and I tell you it has been a liberation to realize you can always find a shock of beauty or meaning in what life you have left.’” You can learn more about his inspiring story here.


For me, Miller represents an example of how art can make life more meaningful. His story is easily understood by anyone from any background. From him, I learned how I could face my own mortality and live, as I had also learned from Mozart, El Greco and others. The ability to consider death is yet another jewel that a humanities education offers the world. It may be a harsh diamond of truth, but nonetheless, I know there is beauty and joy in exploring and expressing our mortality as human beings. I’m grateful for the sensitivities and insights I’ve gained from my experiences with death-related art.  And, to close my thoughts on this subject, I’ll simply ask,

“How has your perception of mortality changed because of your engagement with art?”

Popular Articles...

Leave a Reply