17 Sep 2009

Dan Cruickshank makes a personal journey to explore the art of dying

Death is the only certainty in life but in today’s modern society it is an aspect of our own lives that most of us prefer to ignore or deny. But what can we do to prepare for death? Can we look to art to offer us comfort or explanation in the face of the greatest unknown?

The Art of Dying – co-produced by The Open University – will follow art historian Dan Cruickshank as he explores the answers to these questions. During this extraordinarily intimate and moving journey, Dan will look at the impact of art on death and mourning, and in doing so attempt to face up to his own “inevitable end”.

He explores how death has been dealt with through the ages, from religious ‘doom’ imagery depicting the last judgment and the tradition of deathbed paintings, to the tomb of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Chichele, which was constructed 20 years before his death and before which he knelt in prayer and meditation. Dan also meets art historian and contemplative, Sister Wendy to quiz her on the helpfulness of art in the face of death.

Moving onto modern day depictions, Dan meets Maggi Hambling, who painted her mother after death, and Jamie McCartney who took a plaster cast of his dead father. Touched by the meditation undertaken by Archbishop of Canterbury Henry Chichele, in preparation for his own death, Dan asks Jamie to make a cast of his face; the result he describes as “a modest work of art, preparing me for death.”

Confronting death on both an emotional and an intellectual level, Dan relives the sense of loss of close family – his father and grandfather – and contemplates how one would cope with the death of a child. In an attempt to answer this question, Dan visits an unusually personal war memorial to discover how one artist commemorated her grief at her son’s death.

In a “first” for television, Dan persuades the BBC’s obituary department to let him see his own obituary – an experience he rather regrets. He comments, “In the making of this programme I have confronted what most of us avoid in daily life. Nothing will ever be the same for me after this…”

Dr Carol Komaromy, a senior lecturer in health studies and one of two Open University academic advisors to the programme, says, ‘At the heart of this programme is a personal quest to make sense of death and dying. Dan highlights how making sense of death also means making sense of life as he takes us on a journey that is sometimes very uncomfortable and at other times quite liberating. He manages to explore concerns that many people will share without losing sight of the diverse range of beliefs about what happens after death. Attempts to make sense of dying and death are not new and there was no shortage of resources the team could have used but it is a credit to them that the viewer is given time to consider examples of art – in many forms – and to hear from artists about their personal quests in the art of dying.

The Art of Dying is accompanied by a free booklet entitled Death and Dying: Making sense of the end of life which explores the traditions and taboos surrounding death. To order a copy call 0845 366 80 16, or visit open2.net which includes a wealth of content linked to the themes explored in the programme.

The Art of Dying will TX on BBC FOUR at 9:00pm on 30 September

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