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Art of Death Elective at CCHS

“Death is not the opposite of life, but a part of it.” ~ Haruki Murakami

What do we gain by investigating death? To study death is to learn about the extraordinary world we live in. Some of history’s most amazing artwork and writing has focused on this topic. This past trimester, we (Lizzie Wright:Art & Kelly Adams:Writing) offered a unique elective for CCHS students: The Art of Death. This elective offered students a chance to indulge their curiosity without judgment, investigate historical practices, and try their hands at creating some of the unique art forms associated with death and dying.

By lucky coincidence, our elective began on Halloween, so we started with pumpkin painting and a reading of Edgar Allen Poe’s famous short story, The Cask of Amontillado. Another wonderful stroke of timing had us attending Chris Peditto’s student performance of Bloody Shakespeare scenes and monologues – perfect tie-ins for our elective. We then watched the Crash Course: Philosophy episode about perspectives around death and viewed an incredible dance performance themed around the Day of the Dead.

Next, we visited some of the local cemeteries here in Hurleyville, including the Jewish Cemetery, Indian burial mounds, and the potter’s cemetery. Students were able to gain historical information about the area, and they created grave rubbings featuring names and symbols found on the graves. Each student was asked to choose one person who had passed away before the 1950’s so we could go to the Sullivan County Historical Museum and research their lives. Some of the people we investigated included a Civil War veteran, a sailor lost at sea, and a man falsely accused of murder!

Readings for the course included studying Egyptian Canopic jars and urns. Students created, glazed, and decorated their own urns in our ceramics studio. We also read about Memento Mori and watched a video on Victorian death practices, effigies, and death masks. Students then created their own black and white Memento Mori photos. The photos were fun to create and turned out incredible!

Finally, we had an opportunity to read and share poetry. We began with Here Lies poems – humorous limericks that kept us all laughing. Students also researched some of Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poems about death and were tasked with finding and sharing another famous poem of their choice. Overall, it was a rich and varied experience with opportunities to explore our local history and to learn about other cultures and time periods. This is definitely an elective we hope to repeat!

Two examples of “Here Lies…” poems:

Twenty feet up on the high dive,

he thought he might thrive,

but sadly he’s now in the archive.

By Ashton Adams

Here lies William Sam,

who got too reckless with a frying pan.

Enjoy your life, while you still can.

By Aurora Christiansen

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