Death-defying art comes to light

April 5, 1996

A new exhibition at an Amsterdam avant-garde art institution is confirming Holland's reputation for being in the forefront of the debate about death. But, far from dealing with euthanasia, the project focuses on the rituals surrounding death and suggests new and daring ways to make a grand exit.

The brainchild of Harry Heyink, a Dutch academic, the exhibition at the Arti et Amicitiae Building, is entitled Midden In Het Leven Staan Wij In De Dood - In the Middle of Life There is Death - and encourages visitors to plan their end with artistic flair. Professor Heyink feels it is crucial that death should be celebrated artistically since religious overtones have been largely abandoned.

With Dutch people already rejecting what they see as the impersonal and sombre trappings of traditional funerals in favour of celebrations that better reflect the deceased's lifestyle, some of the novel ideas will deal a further blow to the more established funeral parlours in the Netherlands.

The mood for more personalised ceremonies has spawned a new breed of entrepreneurs and artists. Professor Heyink, who teaches fine art at the State University of Iowa, and is also a mentor for students taking final examinations at the Rietveld Academie, an art institution in Amsterdam, feels that death has been pushed to one side for too long. "Death has positively been hidden away," he says. "It's time to recognise that taking an interest in death will remove some of the fear and grief. It's up to painters, designers and sculptors to make the general public aware of how creative they can be with death."

Creativity extends to a coffin so light it can be carried rucksack-style on the back of one strong bearer (see picture), or a gaudily painted one that flashes a bold neon message: "Stay in touch." One of the more novel ideas is a metal exploding coffin that shatters the corpse into countless pieces in one controlled blast.

But even given artistic licence, few would go to the lengths dreamed up by one of Professor Heyink's more bohemian colleages. His contribution to the theme is a detailed recipe for a funeral meal complete with precise instructions for exact proportions of ingredients to be used in the stuffing - of his own body.

Although Professor Heyink concedes that cannibalism by invitation is unlikely to catch on, he approves of its implicit attitude to death. "It may not be legal yet, but having your body consumed by a group of friends will ensure you continue to be a part of their lives after death."

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