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September 13, 2020

A Personal Investigation into Death · Hannah Suzanna · MFA, Digital + Media 2021

by Hannah Suzanna
Seal or sea lion carcass found on beach in front of my dad’s house. Photo by Hannah Suzanna.

In addition to investigating death through the environmental lens of the site, I also spent time interviewing my dad about what he wants for his own death. This conversation was hard, but not because of anticipatory grief, or because we haven’t broached the subject of his death before. Quite the contrary. My dad would make light of his own death while I was growing up, in order to address the reality without, hopefully, making the topic something I feared. He’s told me to taxidermy his body and mount his head on a plaque like a talking trout trophy so that whenever someone walk’s by a phrase, pre-recorded in his voice, we be shouted at them. Currently, he would like to be rolled off of the path between my family’s home and the beach to decompose naturally and be eaten by animals. He doesn’t care too much though, being cremated and scattered in the ocean with our other family members’ remains would also suffice.

Photo of my oma in front of our house, The Roost. Photo by Martin Garrett.

The challenging part when thinking about death in my family always is about logistics. Which is sad, as one part of my brain can separate out the importance of someone dying from the importance of interpersonal squabbles. However, a strange (and disturbing) part of grief in our society has to do with property ownership. Our family’s house, The Raven’s Roost, is a quonset hut with its own strange mythology. It was a WWII aircraft hanger 40 miles inland before, so the story goes, Edgar Allen Poe’s nephew moved it to it’s current location on the coast. My great grandparents, on my Opa’s side, purchased it when their landlord decided to sell in the 70s. As the primary property of a family without a large income, figuring out how to maintain and care for both the land and the house can bring up a large amount of stress.

My dad retrieving rope washed ashore with help from Kona. Photo by Hannah Suzanna.

Down the hill though is a different world. The path down to the Pacific goes past blackberry brambles and ferns, under trees and beside creeks. It opens up just above the beach to an area called “The Flat Space” a clover covered valley filled with wildflowers and multiple artichoke varieties that a friend of my dad’s gave to him. 

Photo of The Flat Space. Photo by Martin Garrett.

The whole family loves this home, and yet it seems sometimes too unwieldy, like the family dynamics are too strained to come together to take care of it. To make it a comfortable place for my Oma, my dad, and probably my uncle, to age and to die. And will it be manageable for my cousin’s and I to keep once it’s in our hands or will it be too full of it’s own holes, too much tax, too overrun with mouldering books and old mattresses? 

Everyone tells met to separate myself from this stress, that it’s far off, that it’s not my responsibility, that it’s just the material world. These arguments make sense, and I can apply them to other areas of my life, but my connection to this upside-down halfpipe of a home is incredibly strong.

Me on the beach in front of The Roost. Photo by Martin Garrett.

Beyond the personal, understanding the societal context of death is also important — particularly recognizing that racial disparities occur around death, as well as in life. Due to bodies being treated poorly by white funeral directors, Black funeral homes became a trusted source within Black communities. No matter what someone had faced during life, these funeral homes would treat the body with the respect it was due. Outside of working with the cemetery and my own personal investigations, I also participated in a book club put on by The Collective for Radical Death Studies about mass death and social justice. Some focuses included memorialization (Who is it for? Who does it benefit?) and the politics of grief (the interplay of grief and activism, and different reasons why grieving would be shared publicly or kept private). 

While I was helping with PCCC’s presentation, another university student studying conservation cemeteries, and who attended one of our events, gave two source about disparities within death toward Black people and Black death rituals:

The Disappearance of a Distinctively Black Way ​to Mourn
By Tiffany Stanley
https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/01/black-funeral-homes-mourning/426807/ 

‘Ours is a Business of Loyalty’: African American Funeral Home Owners in Southern Cities
By Beverly Bunch-Lyons
https://ncr.vt.edu/docs/53.1.bunch-lyons.pdf 

Additionally, there is a video called:
Why Are Black & White Funeral Homes STILL Separate?
By Caitlin Doughty in conversation with Dr. Kami Fletcher, president of The Collective for Radical Death Studies
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4-0iAzFIcI&ab_channel=AskAMortician 

It is also important to note conservation’s racism, particularly toward indigenous peoples, which is highlighted in the article:
Environmentalism’s Racist History
By Jedediah Purdy
https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history 

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