Breaking the Paradigm of Life: Deathversities and the Call to Unravel Knowing

by Julia Jackson

The binary of life and death has been well-established and defined within modernity, especially as medical definitions and understandings of death are culturally centered, but what if we were to blur those lines? What if we were to weave death into life and life into death? What if the concept of death itself were alive within our practices and journeys towards understanding? 

The concept of “deathversity” addresses this series of questions through deep reflection, personal and collective practice, and various learning methodologies. Deathversities can serve as a site of learning, not passive knowledge collection, but rather, learning as a breathing, alive state of being. Within the Ecoversities alliance, only one group, called Deathversity, is specifically working with this reality. However, this piece serves as a call for ecoversities members to dive deeper into the concept of death and to incorporate practices centering death into their work. It also calls for an expansion of deathversities, not as a singular institution, but rather as a method of practice and learning from death in which death serves as guide, provocateur, and companion. 

Following the threads of death within the Ecoversities Alliance, I spoke with several members on topics ranging from grief practices, to death accompaniment, to the veil between life and death. The individuals I spoke with, connected to ecoversites in Mexico, South Africa, India, and Italy, are just a few of the many brilliant people doing work at this locus point. Our conversations started by considering the process of breathing death into the Ecoversities Alliance, and veered towards the philosophical question of death within the unlearning process at the heart of Ecoversities. The following essay details the wisdom, practices, and opportunities to deepen the lines of inquiry that they offered graciously. 

I hope to honor the care, patience, and rootedness of those who I interviewed. Through my conversations with them and reflections that stirred within me after our time together, I have come to see death and its place within Ecoversities to be vital not only to the broad human experience, but also to the details of life, learning, and being that we encounter every day. Death, in its seemingly unintelligible, threshold-crossing form offers a site of inquiry that moves beyond modern paradigms of “knowledge” and encourages an experience of the world that is far more dynamic and uncapturable. It is a pertinent site of radical re-imagination because it cannot be held within our modern frameworks of the world alone. Death, and Deathversities then, (as the specific spaces of encountering, contemplating, and engaging with death) turn our rigid, modern ideas of knowledge over and bring forth a concept of knowledge that is expansive and ever-learning.

Death Within the Over-Culture 

To understand what I mean when I speak of death as a portal into other ways of knowing, it is important to consider the ways that death is treated within our current cultural context. The overculture of our time, especially in a North American context, shies away from discussion of death in the “meta-physical” sense, and rather strays towards an objectified and static view of death. Death as an object is easily manipulated within the capitalist and extractive systems of modernity. In a culture simultaneously obsessed with the aesthetics of death and yet purposefully alienated from the reality of it, the idea that death may be a dynamic and iterative process rather than a static state is radical.  

Thus, deathversity is not just a practice of learning with and from death, but is also a practice of putting to rest the frameworks of death that hold us back from an expansive and in-depth view of death itself. Neoliberal society is upheld by invisibilized deaths from the war, colonial violence, climate change,  and exploitation. So much death has occurred within modernity without the ritual or even thought to acknowledge it. Grief, then, is a powerful act both personally and collectively where we can come face-to-face with the death wrought by our society. To understand our current place in the world, we must consider death on the human level, the societal level, and within the web of life.

Death and the Self: 

The concept of death contains a deeply emotional and intimate aspect. This was the first major theme that arose outside of my conversations on the idea of deathversitiy. In one particular conversation, Stiaan, a South African death doula, asked me why I was drawn to the topic. I shuddered a bit. Connecting my own story, my own experiences to the topic felt unnatural, and yet, clearly, that unnaturalness was just another blockage I was using to alienate myself from the actual story of death. So I told him.  

My personal story with death was significantly marked when I was 11. I spent the school-year alongside my friend as she received her brain-cancer diagnosis, underwent treatment, and eventually died – a child on her deathbed with children around her. I remember the time in a patchwork of moments – the months of visits, the separate and serious adult conversation drifting across the living room as my mom spoke to hers, the time spent at her house where crafts and baking eventually turned to children’s movies as she grew weaker. 

Her bedroom had been painted bright pink and purple to bring a bit of cheer as she spent her last few weeks on earth bed-bound. On the last visit with her I held her hand as my mother, her mother, and another friend of ours prayed around her. She could barely speak. I remember telling her I loved her. 

Growing up, this experience deeply affected me. In many ways, I felt that I had a friend watching from beyond. With every milestone I crossed I wondered what she may have been experiencing alongside me had she lived. In many ways her death came to mark my life. 

This is the strange thing about death, the way that it shapes life, contours and shades in the details of even the most mundane moments. Emilio, who works with ecoversities in Italy, explained,  “Death is the center of every thought, project, decision, we make in life; a reflection on death is essential to develop critical judgment and make sense of our lives. Especially in Western cultures, where death is seen as a monster that deprives us of everything we have.” Reflecting on death in this deeply personal way serves to mark and make life itself. Giving time and space for this specific kind of learning is key to the deathversity itself, as we wonder what comes next and are forced into existential questions about what this life we have been given means. 

Meditation around the presence of death in our lives can also be connected to meditation around death itself. For many people, the contemplation of their own death brings up questions of fear and anxiety, worries about leaving the body, and significant emotional turmoil. This fear and anxiety links death to the personal as well. We all experience death on our own, and often the contemplation of death is also a contemplation of what it means to be a living “self.”

Practice and Accompanying: 

Walk with me for a moment. Let us go down to the sea and speak with our ancestors, let us build an altar and celebrate their pasts. How we practice death, not just the act of dying, but also the grief, loss, and memory that accompany it, are key moments of learning and consideration that can be incorporated into unlearning frameworks through the Ecoversities Alliance. 

For many of the people I spoke with, personal experience alongside the dying shaped their view of death and the way they interact with it in their lives. For Bhavana Trivedi, the founder of Deathversity in India and a participant in Swaraj University as well, her time as an oncology nurse acquainted her with the realities of death and all that went into knowing when someone was ready to leave this form on Earth. 

Bhavana was not alone in this sentiment, ideas about how to hold death also came up in my conversation with Stiian and Rutendo. Stiaan, as I’ve mentioned, is a South African and Rutendo is an Indigenous African healer. Together, they discussed the ways they have learned to carry death and the intense process of interacting with death so intimately. How we learn to take on death and understand when someone has to go is not a simple practice. As my conversations revealed, it is a process that requires practice, ritual, and knowledge.  

Speaking about the importance of ritual and practice in her understanding of death, Rutendo explained, “especially from an African Indigenous paradigm, there is no separation between [people] who have come before and those yet to come. But there have to be certain rites and rituals in between those states… Our engagement with the dead from Indigenous paradigm is a lot more expanded than the very rigid binary ways of [viewing life].” In this particular instance, ritual is necessary to mark the threshold between life and death. Ritual itself creates the death from which we learn. It is important to recognize the cultural and ecological aspect of rituals. One ritual alone is not the “correct” way to process death. Death necessitates a variety of rituals, and ways of coping. What are the rituals in your life that may mark this passage? 

There are physical aspects to ritual and practice around death as well. In all of my conversations, people brought up The Tibetan Book of the Dead as a guide for meditation and connection with death. Having a text that is steeped in history and practice is an incredible asset in the process of (un)learning from death, and it presents the idea that we can call upon our ancestors, both in written form and unwritten to guide us in understanding death.  

Practices that have been long established can be routes of connection to ancestors and to understandings of death that transcend the individual experience of death and move it into the collective space. My conversation with Aerin, who is connected to ecoversities in Mexico and works with The Emergence network and the We Will Dance With Mountains Course, touched on the idea that practices around The Day of the Dead, like making altars and spending time contemplating our ancestry, can be particularly healing when they work to make death visible and held collectively. Practices like these emphasize that death doesn’t happen in a vacuum and grief does not have to be borne alone. 

Art too can be a tool to hold death collectively. Emilio, whose many credits include artist, explained, “In my opinion, art is an effective tool to make room for death. Imagination, affection, beauty, inspiration, feelings, can be played artistically to talk about death without being overwhelmed by sadness or despair.” My conversation with Aerin revealed a particular example of this. She introduced me to the video The Life of Death, which depicts an anthropomorphized death interacting with the world in an incredibly endearing way and falling in love with life. Through empathy and imagination, art can help us to consider other ways of understanding death.

Opening ourselves up to death as a guide teaches us that death need not and cannot be confined to the grave alone. Build an altar, sit with those who are dying, visit your loved ones graves, research and participate in your ancestral and ecologically rooted practices of burial and death ritual, make art, write poetry, and make the rituals your need to make meaning of death. These practices are openings to deep-rooted, human knowledge. Importantly, they are self guided, not beholden to how we should view death. Death itself is an alive and energizing concept.

Death Challenging Boundaries: 

Navigating death means navigating the idea of knowledge itself. When so much of death is counter to our need to “know” in the approach of the current knowledge system, especially when we consider death beyond a medical context, it opens up fascinating cracks in our systems. How do we handle the reality that science cannot tell us what happens after death? How do we acknowledge that death is an embodied experience? How can we approach grief knowing that it is unruly, unpredictable? How can we hold space for death rituals that vary from place to place, from tradition to tradition, even from person to person? 

Considering these cracks, Aerin introduced the idea that the wound itself may be the site of potential. Within the modern, western construction of the individual, death is a wound to the idea of a singular and complete self, to the idea of wholeness, to the concept of “knowing.” Yet, its status as a wound does not mean we should not touch it. Rather, if we see this wounding as a site of potential, how might we be able to learn from death? 

Nature, or more broadly the world around us, offers invaluable opportunities to learn with death, and offers moments to realize that death can blur the lines we have artificially created between humans and nature. Death encourages us to look beyond the human for learning. For many of us, the death of animal and plant life offers an introduction to death that transcends the human.  Aerin tells me of the many ways nature has intervened with her understanding of death and the solidarity she has felt with other creatures experiencing death as well. Seeing a hummingbird or a butterfly after the death of a loved one and feeling comforted by its presence is not absurd. Rather, it is a reminder of the ways death connects us with the broad web of life. Life on this earth is so fleeting, yet the solidarity the cycles of life and death bring can be so strong.    

Emilio, too, shared his encounter with death and the powerful, unexplainable force of nature, explaining the moment his father died on a climbing trip, saying, “I learned that the beauty of nature depends on us, that life is closely related to nature, that life has an abstract, unexplainable aspect, like my father who was there and a minute later was no longer visible, neither his voice nor his gaze.”  When we de-center the human aspect of death, it does not necessarily make death easier or more understandable, but it does connect us to the world more broadly – blurring the self-imposed bounds between self and nature.

What Deathversity might be 

Bhavnaana’s work to establish Deathversity as an on the ground institution is deeply inspiring. Expanding upon her idea, I believe that it is possible to integrate death into the various modes of inquiry across ecoversities bringing a “deathversities-framework”. Whether it be in understanding the role death plays within ecosystems, how death works philosophically, the role death plays in religion, or – there is ample opportunity to allow death to guide us through life and through inquiry. You do not need to be a death-doula or an embalmer to be touched by death, to learn from it, and to share that knowledge with others. It is an experience of being human, of being alive, and it deserves consideration. 

Death is not an easy or light topic, and our work to sit with it does not attempt to make it so. The deathversity framework is concerned with the idea of what the structure of inevitable death, grief, and sorrow brings to life and to understanding itself. Seeing life as an ebb and flow of understanding and connection rather than a linear acquisition of commodifiable knowledge, as Ecoversities as a whole encourages, allows for us to contemplate death more deeply and to sit with the realities of the unknowns that it brings.

Deathversity as a Life Framework: 

Bhavnaana reminded me in our conversation that talking about death is also talking about the animating force of love. The love and compassion that everyone I spoke to for this project was palpable, and I write this in honor of that. Death and grief may feel isolating, but deathversity reminds us of the love and connection that come with death as well. 

The most significant form of “deathversity” may in fact lie at the threshold of death within our own individual lives. Death leaves us lingering in the unknown, it cracks open firmly held beliefs about knowledge, and it guides us to reconsider meaning altogether. As Bahwana posits, “How might I change my life in the face of death?”

Julia Jackson

About the author

Julia Jackson is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is currently the co-director of For The Wild where she develops rooted, thoughtful content focused on ecology, humanity, and spirituality. She also works with Seeding Sovereignty as a research associate and accessibility coordinator. She graduated summa cum laude with her BA in Anthropology from Georgetown University in 2022 where her anthropological research focused on humanity, environmental narratives, and place-making in the American West earned several fellowships and institutional accolades. Centered deeply around what it means to be human in times of crisis, Julia is also engaged with several public-facing, activism-based academic projects.

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