Finish this sentence: When I think of death, I feel…
When Angela Fama got into a car accident twelve years ago, that sentence stunned her. The time she spent healing from this near-death experience deepened her understanding of life, amplified her thoughts on existence, and opened new depths in her mind. It made her realize something – love is it, that’s all that matters.
Born in Summertown, Tennessee, raised in Ottawa, Ontario, and then Zimbabwe, Fama moved to Vancouver when she was 19, all the while investigating the theme of meaning in her life. Once she recovered from her accident, she set out to define love beyond Webster’s Dictionary through What Is Love – an interdisciplinary photography project featuring over 300 individual collaborators across North America and their personal definitions of love. But, a couple years working on this project, she entered a void.
Fama explained this feeling over a cheap glass of wine with a shot of Coca-Cola on the side to mask its musk: “I ended up learning so much about love that it became nothing and everything at the same time. I wasn’t expecting the nothing part. It was a grey part past the dark and the light. It threw me off. I thought I was going out with the intention to find something beautiful, to see the white light that is found from embracing all sides of love, the light and the dark, but I realized the idea of understanding the entirety of love past even that is a lot bigger than I could have even imagined, and I am not sure it’s even possible for one human to cerebrally comprehend.” What Is Love, in turn, showed her death. The project forced her to recognize that love and death are intrinsically intertwined, and this took her back to her experiences with death from her prior accident. The actuality of love and death are two subjects often avoided in conversation, and unless you’re speaking with a palliative care doctor, the options for platforms or safe spaces to talk about death are limited. “If anybody is reading this past the title,” she paused, “it means they’re open to talk about it, and they’re curious.”
The Death Conversation Game is a game Fama developed in a Critical Practices Workshop at Emily Carr University, spawned from the aftermath of the What Is Love project. In the class, Fama was asked to write an essay, but instead presented the professor with a stack of 67 cards, each featuring a different question pertaining to death. Are you afraid to die? Do you believe talking about death is bad luck? How do you want your body cared for after you die? How would you like to be remembered?
Growing up internationally, Fama drew comparisons in our conversation about how death is explored and memorialized around the world. The Malagasy people of Madagascar, for example, unearth their loved ones after years of being buried. They spray exhumed bodies with wine and perfume and dance with corpses at the crypt – a jubilee to commemorate the dead. Boisterous marching bands in New Orleans, Louisiana, parade down streets and lead familial congregations of the recently deceased to burial sites – a rumpus of brass instruments, a procession that shakes the ground and sky with great celebration. In Tibet, a dead body is dissected, sliced up, placed at the top of a mountain and fed to birds. Known as the Tibetan Sky Burial, the ceremony donates the dead to creatures of the air, as traditional Tibetans believe that the human body is just a vessel for the soul.
In Western culture, we don’t typically celebrate death. We struggle to talk about it. We say goodbye as if goodbye is an absolute end. We associate death with the colour black – an empty abyss. We grieve in silence. It is the elephant in the room, a subject avoided. We try so hard to make sense of our lives, but death is the opposite of sense, and it’s also the only thing we all have in common. We can’t escape it, and Fama believes that learning how to accept questions that stem from death should be a part of our routine conversations.
The Death Conversation Game is meant to help facilitate these conversations. There is no win or lose, and you’re never forced to answer or ask any question you don’t want to. It’s a tool that can create connection with whoever you play with, which isn’t to say that you can’t play alone; it can be your own orchestration. As the creator, Fama has facilitated the game within groups of people, and played it intensely by herself while generating the questions. She believes that talking and thinking about death can be a healthy way to take agency on the subject, even if it’s a small step towards easing the Western world’s fabrication of it – a glamorized, dramatized, and sexualized media subject.
“We don’t know what it is,” Fama stresses. “We can’t conceive it. So the next time someone shares something with you regarding whatever is beyond us, think on it, be aware of it, and when a feeling hits you in response to it, ask yourself what it is. Be present with it.”
It isn’t often we see people sharing their thoughts about death. However, the process of discussing death can open the floodgates to our most empathetic and compassionate selves. Next Spring, Fama will be speaking at TEDxECUAD on the topic of How Talking About Death Can Make You Happy, and has proposed to facilitate a Death Conversation Game session on campus in addition to her speech. Inspired by What Is Love, Fama’s Death Conversation Game offers us with a space where we can be vulnerable, curious, and more involved in the subject. It helps us become more present, and, in turn, encourages us to listen to our ideas of life – our human realm that is always on the precipice of death.