Dying before you die in a work of art

Date of news: 26 October 2021

Does our vision of life and death change by practising death before you die in a work of art? Researcher Enny Das investigated, in cooperation with artists Babs Bakels and Vibeke Mascini, the impact of the art installation 'This body that once was you' on the fear of death. Coming Tuesday 2 November - on All Souls' Day - Das will share the first findings of the research.

The fear of death is mankind's most fundamental fear. People usually deal with it by suppressing all thoughts of death. This has its benefits, but it can get in the way of the pursuit of a full, fulfilled life. Visitors of the art installation in Felix Meritis in Amsterdam (8 to 15 June) visualised their own death and decomposition in a guided meditation, sitting in a field of human bone matter. In an experimental set-up, linguist Enny Das compared the responses of participants in the installation over the following two weeks with the responses of two control groups, in which participants were asked to reflect on their own death, or on a neutral, different subject (watching TV). A total of 229 participants took part in the first measurement and 105 completed the second measurement as well.

The initial results of this study show that participants in the art installation were more moved and felt more connected to a higher power, compared to participants in the control groups. The art installation also elicited more sustained reflective thoughts about life and death, leading them to value their own lives more in the weeks following the study. No differences were found on fear of death or other negative emotions, and the effects remained when individual differences (e.g. spirituality) were controlled for.

The findings underline the usefulness of the ritual to 'die before you die'. This ritual has been practiced for centuries by Buddhists, philosophers and others, but - as far as is known - had never been subjected to a robust scientific test. The results also show that art can seduce people into thinking about 'the unthinkable'.

The event 'Experience your own death' will take place on 2 November in Felix Meritis Amsterdam. Check the website for more information and tickets.