Conversations About Mortality

2 October 2016

Written by: Katherine McLeod

The GroundSwell project is trying to change perceptions about death, writes Katherine McLeod.

Talking about death doesn’t have to be scary. It only takes one conversation to inform loved ones of your final wishes or beliefs.

The GroundSwell Project is a not for profit organisation that, through the use of art, is trying to engage young people and help end the stigma that surrounds the end of life.

Kerrie Noonan is the creator of The GroundSwell project. During a trip to India, Noonan was able to observe neighborhood volunteer projects, one of which included 30,000 volunteers working in palliative care. With volunteers being as young as 17, Noonan says the trip gave her a much welcome culture shock.

“I was inspired to ask the question, ‘How are we engaging young people in Australia in end of life issues?’ This led to connecting up with St Christopher’s Hospice in London, and the performing arts school called the Brit School. They encouraged us and we were able to develop our first school based drama project in 2010,” Noonan tells upstart.

“It was the first of its kind in Australia, and the learning created the foundation for the rest of our work. I was also lucky to meet Peta Murray, the co-founder of GroundSwell who is also a playwright. It was a perfect storm of the right people, the right timing and great mentoring.”

Through their use of film and art, The GroundSwell Project has seen a positive reception in schools. Monday the 8th of August saw ‘Dying to Know Day,’ an annual event dedicated to starting conversations on the subject of bereavement and death. Events such as ‘Death Cafe’, which took place in Hurstbridge, aimed to give participants the chance to hear from literacy advocates, funeral celebrants and scholars. Year round programs also take place, such as workplace support.

Noonan believes that events like these help people come to terms with mortality.

“Massive social change is coming whether we are ready or not. The next decade could really be a catalyst to new approaches and an opportunity to do death better.  We can make a contribution through promoting new practices, resources and conversations in the community. To make this happen, dying needs to become more of a mainstream issue.”

The arts play a major role in The GroundSwell Project, with events such as the FilmLife Project, and the drama project. Giving young people the opportunity to develop connections and to collaborate with others, the drama project has seen group performances dealing with life and death, grief and loss. Both new and emerging filmmakers have used the FilmLife Project to share experiences of loss, and encourage Australians to talk about organ donation with their loved ones.

Another project that GroundSwell participates in is Hidden-Rookwood Cemetery’s Sculpture Walk. An outdoor exhibition that is set in the grounds of the cemetery. The exhibition allows the public to walk through a historic cemetery, while looking at thought provoking sculptures relating to remembrance, love, culture and history.

While she admits that death is a hard topic to approach within society, Noonan believes that through conversation, attitudes can change.

“I’m not sure that we can ever truly be 100% comfortable with the idea of our own death. It’s hard to think about not existing. What talking about death can do, however, is help us think about how to live life meaningfully, and what kind of legacy we want to leave in the world. Theoretically it should also lead to better end of life planning too,” she says.

“The more we practice talking about death, expressing our values and wishes, it does seem to lessen personal anxiety about talking about death. In the long run to achieve significant cultural change we need to see talk translate into action.

“End of life conversations don’t really change much on their own if people still don’t have access to the end of life care that they need.

“The arts are a powerful vehicle for enabling conversation and personal reflection. This can help people explore their own attitudes and values about death and dying.”


Katherine-McleodWeb_thumb Katherine McLeod is a third year journalism student at La Trobe University and a staff writer for upstart. Twitter: @kattt_mcleod