Belltable:Connect 10 blog – Joanne Ryan

Read Joanne Ryan’s reflective blog detailing her experiences as part of Belltable:Connect 10.

I love the first phase of researching a new project. Without any pressure of production dates or deadlines, and often with just a guiding question in hand, it’s a chance to completely dissolve into a subject. I cast a very wide net as I wade into my research for the first time. Although the audience and performance is always somewhere at the back of my mind, I try to lose myself in the learning and inquiring before I arrive at the form.

My work usually comes from one initiating question – often something I’m consumed with in my own life – that the research and the work tries to answer. In this case the question was How can I prepare myself for my death? Research is an exciting, dynamic process. One thing leads to another and new questions surface all the time but the main initiating question acts as an anchor when I need it to during the process. (continue reading below)

Watch Joanne Ryan’s Reflective Vlog:

I began by rereading sections of The Tibetian Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, a book that in many ways has inspired the whole project. It was when I read it a number of years ago that I was first struck by how utterly unprepared I am – culturally, spiritually, practically, psychologically, every which way – for death, despite it being the only thing that I know is definitely going to happen to me, and that the seed was planted.

After looking at the text that first inspired me again and doing some written reflections, I decided to start in the past and contacted Dr. Clodagh Tait, author, historian and one of Ireland’s foremost experts in death and the dead in early modern times.

We discussed historical approaches to death and dying through the ages and how pandemics are often a time that sharpen people’s attitudes to death and force them to give it more consideration.

My conversations with Clodagh led me to the Ars Moriendi, The Art of Dying, a popular medieval text that offered advice on the procedures of a good death. Written in the aftermath of the Black Death it was a handbook on how to ‘die well’ and the first written guide to dying.

I spent some time learning about the impact that the plague and the Ars Moriendi had on popular culture during the 14th century when regular plague outbreaks meant that people lived in constant fear of death. In ballads for example or in art and iconography.

This brough to me to the recently republished 1980’s seminal book The Craft of Dying (The Modern Face of Death) by Lyn H. Loftland which introduced me to the Happy Death movements of the ‘70s and in turn led me to John Troyer’s Technologies of the Human Corpse and Jessica Mitford’s The American way of Death Revisited.

Loftland’s writing about the death movements in the 70’s made me wonder about equivalent contemporary movements which led me to Caitlin Doughty, American mortician and founder of The Order of Good Death and then to her debut book From Here to Eternity; Travelling the World to Find the Good Death.

After falling down a fascinating Caitlin Doughty rabbithole – in addition to writing books she has made hundreds of brilliant mini documentaries about all aspects of death and dying – I brought my focus back to Ireland.

I spent some time searching for references to death in The Schools Collection, a wonderful digitised archive of Irish folklore collected from school children around the country in the 1930s and a brilliant free resource. Then I looked to some recent documentaries that have handled the subject including RTÉ’s The Funeral Director  and RTÉ Radio 1’s Kicking the Bucket, about a Limerick project led by Katie Verling and the late Limerick artist Sinéad Dineen.

I ended this research phase with three beautiful books that deal with dying in different ways; When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die and With the End in Mind; How to Live and Die Well by Kathryn Mannix. They were poignant, insightful and compelling and they were as much about living as they were about dying which I think any meaningful interrogation of death really is.

This research phase was a wonderful journey through a fascinating subject. Even though I have only scratched the surface I now have a good overview and far deeper understanding, a long list of books, experts and other materials that I hope to consult in the future and an even longer list of more detailed research questions. It has also raised some important and challenging questions around form and audience that I look forward to grappling with in the next phase of work.

Thanks so much to Belltable:Connect for the opportunity.