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KERRIE NOONAN by Tina Fiveash copy
What taboo? Talking about death and dying

Let’s talk about death. It’s not the most popular of conversation-starters, but it is perhaps the most important. After all, we will all die; every single one of us will take that journey that every living thing before us

has taken.

Yet despite this inevitability, we are, on the whole, woefully 
under-prepared for our own deaths and the deaths of our loved ones. We don’t know what our options are in terms of where and how we die, we don’t know what our options are with respect to caring for the dead, and we don’t know what our options are when it comes to burying the dead.

This lack of ‘death literacy’ is something that Kerrie Noonan is 
trying to change. As co-founder of The GroundSwell Project and Dying To Know Day – and a psychologist who works in palliative care, Noonan has dedicated much of her career to helping people better understand and deal with death.

Noonan was inspired by movements in the UK and India, 
which use the creative arts to explore and inform people about all aspects of death and dying.

“This is about applying the evidence from health and using 
the arts as a creative way to meld messages and ideas and thoughts about end-of-life planning, death literacy, and how we can change the way that we do death and dying in the community,” Noonan says. “Our vision is that big broad vision where everyone knows what to do when someone’s dying or grieving.”

The GroundSwell Project was set up seven years ago. Two 
years later, Dying To Know Day, or D2KDay for short, was launched on August 8. The idea was to encourage communities and individuals to organise their own events around the theme of death literacy. Since its inception, there have been nearly 300 events held under the Dying To Know Day banner. They range from tea, cake and chat in someone’s lounge room to a town-hall event for over 200.

“The events are usually a combination of head, heart and getting hands on; getting involved in 
some kind of aspect of death and dying,” Noonan says. For example, at The GroundSwell Project’s first conference on death literacy, a presenter brought along one of the cooling beds that she provides to enable a family to care for the body of their loved one at home for up to five days after death.

“It was a performance of the work 
that she does at the end of life, she worked with a family in front of us, and there was a ‘dead body’ – an actor – who was there, and she performed the rituals and the work she does with families,” Noonan says. “Part of death literacy is being involved, being in there, and we always try and build that element into the work.”

One event that The GroundSwell 
Project itself has run at venues around the country is its 10 Things To Know Before You Go workshop, which introduces people to the many different aspects of what Noonan calls the ‘death system’, and how to plan and prepare for death.

“We get bogged down a bit in 
palliative care and the health system, but in fact that is just one little silo amongst others in the death system, she explains.

“It’s about understanding, for 
example, what your rights are around who can care for a body at home, how does that happen, can you organise your own funeral, what does that mean in terms of what supports can you access in your community.”

But Noonan says it’s one thing to know these things, it’s 
another thing entirely to put them into practice. Which is why many GroundSwell and Dying To Know Day events bring together people with first-hand experience, to share what they’ve learned with people eager to understand the real options and challenges.

“For example, not many people would naturally know what 
to do with a dead body unless they’ve seen someone do it before, so a lot of the people are now saying to themselves ‘I’ve done this before, this is the knowledge I can share in my community’,” she says.

Noonan says people coming to events generally fit into one 
of two categories. They’re either trying to understand and make sense of an experience that they have been through with the death of someone, and part of that understanding is sharing their experiences with other people.

“Then there are people who are there to plan, who are facing 
their own terminal illness, or maybe have a chronic illness and see that it would be wise, because of an experience they’ve had in their life, to get on and plan,” she says.

It’s often said that talking about death is taboo, but this 
perception is not only untrue, it’s also potentially harmful, because it excuses society – and often prevents individuals – from asking questions and understanding our options around dying and death.

Initiatives like The GroundSwell Project and Dying To Know 
Day tackle that myth head-on, and show very clearly by their growing popularity and attendance that people do in fact want to talk about death.

Maybe death isn’t such a conversation-killer after all.

Bianca Nogrady





Kerrie Noonan. Photo by Tina FiveAsh

We are so fascinated by death, ever since we saw Keipher Sutherland and Julia Roberts in Flatliners, so we bought a house next to the cemetery and walk it every day:

Death becomes everybody.

The not knowing what's on the other side is what's intriguing - we don't want to live for ever in this forsaken planet. It's what's on the other side which drives me.

We are ready. We just have so many more things still to do before we actually go. One thing I do ask is for you all not to cry at my funeral:

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