Az State Museum exhibit shows how 'death is what unites us'
A collection of films and photography showcasing how different cultures deal with death, "Walking Each Other Home: Cultural Practices at End of Life," opens at the Arizona State Museum on September 10.
"We've been working for almost a decade with end-of-life issues," Kimi Eisele, a folklorist at the Southwest Folklife Alliance said. "So, thinking about death and dying — but the cultural traditions around planning for, preparing for, and then, the act of dying. There's different ways that cultures practice and hold traditions and rituals in those moments."
The two groups have studied a wide variety of end-of-life practices with the goal of informing the public and answering questions — to "de-stigmify conversations about death." And this exhibit isn't their first project together. They've worked with ethnographers to learn about traditions, hosted dinner conversations, and for two years been working on a series about at-home care for the dying. Recent events like the COVID-19 pandemic have inspired them to celebrate caregivers — professional or not, Eisele said.
Part of the new exhibit focuses on a study in which five ethnographers were paired with five home caregivers. They worked together for a year, conducting interviews both in-person or via Zoom, documenting the caregivers' experiences. Eisele said they're aiming to bring dignity and visibility to the their work, and the relationships that developed during the research project.
Sarah Ascher, associate vice president at Arizona End of Life Care Partnership, said the cultural diversity in Tucson made it the perfect city to conduct their projects.
"Our mission is that people get the care they deserve at the end of their life," Ascher said. "And so much of that is related to cultural traditions."
According to Ascher, most people have an idea of where they'd like to die — for example, many wish to die at home. But those wishes aren't always granted — especially when it comes to things out of the family's control. Ascher has experienced many different scenarios with her own family — such as her mom dying from cancer and her brother dying from suicide. These gave her the perspective that it is necessary to provide a space in which wishes are honored for people at the end of their lives, when possible.
"Death is the one thing that unites us," Ascher said. "We are all going there, so we should all feel like we can talk about death."
Photographer Kathleen Dreier was matched up with Fernando Ochoa, a home caregiver. He spent more than a dozen years taking care of his mother, then both parents when his father developed dementia, and now his father alone as his mother has died.
Originally from Mexico, he and his father now live in South Tucson. Dreier said Ochoa described his life as being from the book by Laura Esquivel, "Like Water for Chocolate," where the main character also takes care of her mother. For over a year, Dreier recorded sessions in which she documented his story. Ochoa's experiences will be among those featured in the exhibit, and she hopes it touches people.
"I hope that people are more open not only about expressing grief and loss, but to feel more present about grief and loss," Dreier said. "It is a part of our lives, and I know that for myself, when my time comes, I hope that I go prepared and have it on my terms, and that I'm not afraid."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Fernando Ochoa’s last name.
Bianca Morales is TucsonSentinel.com’s Cultural Expression and Community Values reporter, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.