Talking About Death Doesn’t Make it Happen Sooner

“Death used to be something done in community and we’ve taken it and made it into something that has to be hidden away.”

Dr. Tina Burdsall 

I spend a lot of time thinking about death. I read about it, I write about it, I focus so much of my practice around it. It’s something I spend so much of my daily life thinking about and yet it’s not usually a topic I get to discuss with other people. Other than a select few (my cohort, my mom), most people want to run in the other direction when I bring up death. So for this interview, I wanted to find someone who could sit in the discomfort of death and talk about it anyway. When I was thinking about who might be able to do this with me I remembered Shelbie Loomis, program alum, telling me about an elective she took in the sociology department that was focused around death and dying. I reached out to the professor who teaches the class and what follows is a conversation with someone whose work dives right into these different topics. 

Olivia DelGandio: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and what you do at PSU?

Dr. Tina Burdsall: I have a split appointment between the Sociology Department and the Honors College. I teach a sociology of death and dying class, and I’ve also taught a few seminars for the Honors College in end of life care. Medical sociology is where my focus started and it’s progressed to focus more on end of life care.

Olivia: I’d love to focus on the sociology of death and dying for this conversation. What do you think one of the most pressing issues in this field is right now? 

Dr. Burdsall: I think we need to start talking about dying much, much earlier in life rather than waiting until you are actually faced with a terminal illness. We need to actually start thinking about what death means to us, about what a good death might mean.

Olivia: What would talking about it earlier look like?

Dr. Burdsall: Well, I think that that conversation needs to be more holistic. We, as a society, are both a death denying culture and one that is obsessed with these very unrealistic images of what death is. And as a whole, we are not very good at transitions or loss and I think we need to start there, at what transitions in life look like. Then, we can move into talking about death more openly and once you start to understand what a good death looks like, you’ll begin to think about what a good life means.

Olivia: Why do you think death is so often ignored until the last possible second?

Dr. Burdsall: I think it has a lot to do with the way our society is obsessed with productivity. We’re constantly trying to prove our value and once death comes, we lose it all. It’s also just straight up scary, no one knows what’s going to happen so it’s obviously easier just to ignore it. Death used to be something done in community and we’ve taken it and made it into something that has to be hidden away. So if you’re not involved, you don’t see it, you don’t need to think about it. It’s all of these structures that make death such an easy thing to ignore. 

Olivia: What’s the impact of ignoring it?

Dr. Burdsall: So much isolation. 

Olivia: I’m interested in exploring this in my practice and in conversation with my community. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on bringing up hard topics like this with other people?

Dr. Burdsall: One of the first things I bring up in my classes is that talking about death doesn’t make it happen sooner. I could say I’m going to die tomorrow and saying it will not bring death to my doorstep. I don’t think other people see it this way so I think it’s important to start there and ask why do we think this? Why is it so scary to talk about? 

Olivia: In my practice, I think a lot about making grieving a more communal practice because it’s so often deemed something that must be done in private. What do you think are some beneficial practices for after you lose someone?

Dr. Burdsall: Well I think that the community part of it is key. Just bringing the community together around grief can change everything. The solitude, the isolation, is what makes it so difficult and what keeps it taboo. 

Olivia: This is making me think about the work I might eventually want to do as a death doula.

Dr. Burdsall: I knew a doula a couple of years back who did these sort of legacy projects with the person who was dying. They would work together on some kind of creative project like writing letters to family or creating a memory box for the grandchildren, in order to foster that connection and sense of meaning.

Olivia: That sounds exactly like the kind of work I would want to do. Thank you for sharing.

A page from Grief is a Reservoir, a project done of mine that explores the communal aspect of grieving.
2022. Portland, OR. Image courtesy of Olivia DelGandio 

Olivia DelGandio (she/they) is a storyteller who asks intimate questions and normalizes answers in the form of ongoing conversations. They explore grief, memory, and human connection and look for ways of memorializing moments and relationships. Through their work, they hope to make the world a more tender place.

Dr. Tina Burdsall (she/her) is a Sociology professor at Portland State University interested in medical sociology, death and dying, health disparities, and teaching pedagogies. 

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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