« Today there is nothing left of the awareness that everyone has or should
have that their end will come soon, there is nothing left of the solemn public
nature of the very moment of Death. What used to be known is now hidden.
What used to be solemn is now evaded. (…) Daring to speak about Death,
accepting Death in our social relationships can’t be part of our daily life any
longer, if you do so you cause an exceptional, outrageous and always dramatic
situation. Death used to be a familiar figure and moralists had to make it
hideous in order to cause fright; today, the mere mention of Death will cause
an emotional tension at odds with the steadiness of daily life. »
Philippe Ariès, Essays on the history of death1
When LMG, an artist whom I discovered a few years ago, launched her epitaph project, I volunteered to be one of the first contributors. LMG is an «Agrégé » teacher in fine arts and a Parisian artist who also devotes some of her time to writing short stories and plays. She launched the Epitaph project in May 2011 when she asked the first participants to write a letter about their future death, explaining that she would «translate » their messages into drawings. She first contacted relatives, relations and colleagues and the project grew from there till she received letters from total strangers and from all over the world. Her goal is eventually to receive 365 letters from people writing about their future
death. She has produced 240 Epitaph drawings so far.
Being aware that Death, the enigmatic reaper, can be a terrifying or at least a difficult prospect to consider especially in today’s sanitized societies where even talking of Death can be considered rude, LMG has based her artistic project on a « gift for gift » procedure: the participants write about their death, which brings them to question and visualize it in a prospective manner, indeed the artist intends to place the participants in a situation where they can face and confront their death, something that cannot be done a-posteriori.
In the first stage, LMG receives the letters – prospective obituaries or wills – in which the participants describe their final departure, the artist insists on receiving real letters, not emails although she has accepted two audio-recordings from paralyzed and illiterate participants. She has received letters from Japan, Belgium, Lebanon, the USA, Morocco, Norway, Italy, Israel. In the second stage, after reading, rereading and sometimes translating the letters into French, the artist produces a black lead drawing on a 30 by 30 cm sheet of paper which is then glued to a backing. All the drawings have got the same size and are done on similar heavy-weight white paper sheets; the artist only uses charcoal, black lead, a kneaded rubber and a fixative. But the similarity stops there: each drawing is treated as the unique expression of the original letter, both in its content and its appearance, so each drawing also has unique plastic characteristics. Superimpositions, hatching, blanks, stains, etc reveal the artistic gesture which in turn is linked to the visual aspect-not just the text- of the letter. Take Epitaph n°19: the letter LMG received was full of crossed-out words, corrections, extra annotations so that the drawing also expresses this with little strokes and hatching. Epitaph n° 131 is a black post-card with a stain in its middle, so the stain plus the message on the card initiated a drawing with a blank in its center; the artist even pays attention to such details as the color of the ink, the type of paper that has been used, the style of the writing, the shape of the envelopes, etc.
Under each drawing you can see a title plaque on which are mentioned the initials, date and place of birth of the writer. In the eyes of the artist confidentiality is essential, neither the full names nor the messages in the letters will be published; this confidentiality enables all kinds of people from all walks of life, nationalities, origins or socio-economic backgrounds to take part without having to respect specific established writing norms or to use learned and grammatically acceptable forms. This accounts for the great variety of the texts that have been received and treated, some with lots of crossed-out words and spelling mistakes, others looking very neat and methodical, they can be brief or long, there are haikus, dialogues, puzzles, soliloquies, various qualities of paper and colors of ink have been used. This serial project can be seen as a syntactic variation on the theme of Death. LMG’s series of visual interpretations tends to show that Death is a polymorphic entity rousing a variety of feelings in those who stop and contemplate it. At the beginning of the project in May 2011 not very many people volunteered to send their prospective vision of their death but after a couple of months the word of mouth effect as well as LMG’s appeal through Epitaph invitation cards and her website proved efficient so that she received more and more participations as the months passed.
After I received such a card it took me quite a while before I could actually decide whether I really wanted to write about my future death and send one of the first contributions (Epitaph n°3). I first reacted like what Philippe Ariès describes in the incipit, that is «talking about Death, should it be one’s own, simply is not done ». Mulling over the issue for a few days, I eventually realized that I had never seen anybody actually give their last, not even my grandparents or my parents. I was abroad for professional reasons when my father died; as for my mother, even though she spent the last months of her life at my home as she was terminally ill and aware of her state and I can remember Death hovering in the house all that time, I was not near her bed when she actually « passed away »; so perhaps my own death would also be the first one I would actually see – but from within – and here was a colleague and artist who was giving me the opportunity to choose my death, invent it, write about it and somehow rehearse it and hopefully master the dread it can cause when we stop and think about our tragic destiny. I finally understood that there was nothing unhealthy in the project, that it was a « gift for gift» process, finally that my text did not have to be about a painful, lengthy, horrendous death, I was not one of those Londoners in the plague year of 1665 dreading to be caught by the pestilence, I had time to consider the type of death I wanted2.
As far as I knew I was still in good health, indeed if I wished to do so I could write about an ideal death, an easy, painless and sudden death and also a death when I would die on my own without any staging of the deed or final shaking of hands and rending of hearts. After a while, my husband also decided he wanted to contribute so that in the next few days the most unusual conversations took place: « Have you produced your death? » « I know you’re busy but don’t forget your death ». I finally decided that the death I yearned for and wanted to write about was to take place in a garden on a summer day; I was lying in a deck-chair reading The Battle of Life3. At one point I went into the house and put the kettle on to make some tea that I poured into my favorite china cup with a pattern of oak leaves and tiny golden stars; then I settled outside into the deck chair again and started sipping that tea when IT happened.
Now if you look at Epitaph n°3 carefully, you will notice that LMG has not drawn what I have not talked about and do not consider of paramount importance: dying a «good » death in order to save my soul, leaving the living behind, the funeral rituals, the decaying cadaver and its aftermath as «food for worms 4»; she has discarded what she considered irrelevant or not very meaningful details such as the deckchair or the novella I was reading; the lying figure on the ground could be anybody, male or female, this silhouette is so lightly drawn, so blurred that the body has nearly disappeared already, the arms are absent, the torso and womb seem to have mingled with the two oak leaves at the bottom or to have been sucked up by them and the feet are resting on another leaf , like a huge natural cushion ; the twig of oak leaves is upside down in the same way as the world of the deceased went upside down the minute she/I died ; besides the leaves fill up about half of the sheet thus symbolizing the hold and strength of nature as a whole as opposed to the smallness and gone substance of one of its elements, the blurred body. The motif of the oak leaf, which was a minor aesthetic detail in my mind when I wrote the Epitaph, has been given an important symbolic and perhaps spiritual meaning by LMG; the same can be said of the star motif on the cup rim: The seven stars in the top part can symbolize the flight of the human senses from that body with a possible hint at a journey towards the quintessence. Although I would define myself as an agnostic, I find the symbols of the powerful oak (resilient, all-absorbing Nature) and that of the travelling stars (the dying five senses but also the five vital elements) very comforting.
I consult LMG’s website regularly and sometimes contemplate Epitaph n°3 or how LMG has managed to give a cosmic dimension to what was merely a mortal’s wish for a swift death. I also follow her project as a whole and now have some favorites among the 240 Epitaphs that she has « translated » into drawings so far. I hope that LMG’s Ars Moriendi5 has also helped the other participants confront their unavoidable death, master it in advance and learn to loosen their hold on life when the time comes; LMG’s on-line project also enables them to enjoy looking at the graphic interpretations of their own wishes and also the wishes from other participants and to be caught in a web of comparisons and inferences. There is no reason why the pendulum movement of LMG’s EPITAPHS project should cease soon.6
- Philippe Ariès, Essays on the history of death in the western world from the middle ages to today, Seuil, 1975, p.170
- Daniel Defoe, A journal of the London Plague Year, first published by E.Nutt, 1722
- Charles Dickens, The Battle of Life, first published in 1846 by Bradbury and Evans. This novella was the fourth Christmas story in a series of five. In the first part, a fierce battle takes place, that scars the place for centuries, and yet, after many generations the battle becomes an obscure, blurred memory and life thrives again.
- « Food for worms », from Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Act IV, scene 3, lines 21-27 in which Hamlet explains that fat king and skinny beggar alike will be devoured by worms when their time comes.
- Ars Moriendi or art of dying: The expression was first used in 1408 by French theologian Jean Charlier de Gerson. He defined it in a treaty Opusculum tripertitum de praeceptis decalogii, de confessione et de arte moriendi. Gerson’s precepts to die a Christian death became commonly used by the clergy with the ailing and the dyingin the 15th century.
- LMG’s website: lmg-nevroplasticienne.com