It will be quiet. All of my friends will be there. I’ll take an innocent looking pill on the morning of my 40th birthday and slip away peacefully. My friends will drink cheap red wine and smoke in my honour. By this point cigarettes will have to be ordered on the darknet, paid for in Bitcoin, and imported inside small bags of ecstasy which is now very legal and deeply uncool. I will have achieved everything I set out to achieve and I will no longer be afraid of anything.
This is how I have decided to die.
This is also a misinterpretation of the task at hand. In Hiroharu Mori’s Death Workshop, students are asked to imagine and rehearse the circumstances of their own deaths, rather than how best to make themselves comfortable with dying. It is an exercise in probabilities, in ordering disasters both big and small according to how easy they are to imagine. There is an earthquake, a sudden death in an office building, a stereo stands in for a malignant growth.
It is possibly more likely to happen in a matter of weeks and a matter of shattered bones, broken glass and warped metal. I am a very indignant pedestrian. I have reconciled myself to this outcome, but not enough to have written a will.
It is a story and we think we can point to the exact moment it ends. We don’t, and we’d rather not, remember the conditions of its beginning but we can piece together something almost satisfying from the vague abstractions we have been given. There is a clumsiness to it, both the conceit and the execution. Wooden blocks are collapsed buildings, and elsewhere computers. I had trouble locating the final scene. Possibly an airport or a high-density hotel. The placement of indoor plants near lying bodies is not so much the point here, though. Perhaps it has more to do with death rendered first as an inconvenience, then a shock, then quickly an opportunity to steal a stranger’s watch. It is this example, as well as the apathy performed when an office worker slides in silence off her seat, that suggest these might be moralising tales. This seems too easy, indicative more of whatever drives certain fictions to come to us quickly than it reveals what the work does.
Where the conceit is concerned, the clumsiness is born of the futility of applying sense to death. The work begs us to imagine a rational anticipation of things going terribly wrong. During the course of its 45 minutes, though, the work’s sincerity endears. We become implicated in the exercise’s farce. Any suggestion of pleasure derived from watching other people try and die well, as in an extended scene featuring bodies trying to fall as realistically as possible, eventually dissolves. It becomes possible to interpret the exercise not quite as a set of sadistic demands, but as a deeply empathic gesture, a way of easing future grief by practicing it as a set of motions. A bad death, according to anthropologist Nadia Serematakis, is a death without witness. It is an unsolved disappearance. It is the absence of a body on which to perform rituals necessary for others’ healing. It is probably too generous to call ourselves witnesses to a series of staged deaths, but we find ourselves caught in the middle of plans being made and remade, relationships accounted for, actions altered and repeated until they feel right, or at least less wrong, small attempts to make dying better on the living.
There are certain slippages, points from which the parameters of task bleed outwards. The man with the stereo-cancer growing in or on his stomach imagines his life as an actor, barely making enough money to live. A relative of his doubts whether she will end up crying. Later, a digression takes hold, the actors find themselves wondering at what point the scenes should end; at the time of death, or whether they are allowed to give currency to certain afterlives, certain impacts, to grief as it coils its way around those other actors in the scene. It becomes an exercise both in dying, and in trying to live with not quite thriving.