Manitoba

'Taking it to the Grave': 28-year-old with terminal cancer plans performance art living funeral

A 28-year-old Manitoba man with terminal cancer is planning a performance art show that will also function as his living funeral — all in an effort to confront the way we think and talk about death.

Andrew Henderson, 28, will take confessions at his living funeral and get tattoos as part of performance

“I just hope people develop a stronger relationship with death and realize how much of a positive gift it actually is as opposed to something that is swept under the rug and not talked about openly,” said Henderson. (Caroline Brassard)

A 28-year-old Manitoba man with terminal cancer is planning a performance art show that will also function as his living funeral — all in an effort to confront the way we think and talk about death.

Andrew Henderson was diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma three years ago. Last September, he found out it was incurable.  

Henderson said it was a surprise. He had been told over and over again he was young and healthy, and he would be OK.

"It was the shock of realizing, 'Oh, I should have — I'm not going to be fine,'" he said. "I maybe cried about it for 15 minutes and then was like, 'What is the year that all the rock stars die at? How do I get in the 27 club?' It was a quick turnaround of embracing it and having fun with it.'"

Now, Henderson is on maintenance chemo, which will extend his life, but doctors won't say by how much, and he's producing a performance art piece called Taking it to the Grave. It will also be his living funeral.

'My funeral the way I would want it'

"Part of our show is designing my funeral the way I would want it as a queer person who wants it to be fabulous and wonderful," said Henderson.

That means a manicure bar, cozy seating, a lot of glitter and Henderson seated inside a champagne bottle.

Henderson will take private confessions from people at the show and get a tattoo symbolizing their secret, which he will literally take to the grave.

"As soon as we tell people about the project, they're already having an immediate reaction. They're already experiencing a cathartic moment right then and there, and they haven't even seen the piece yet," said Henderson.
Andrew Henderson has put his maintenance chemo on hold to do his show, Taking it to the Grave. In terms of when he will go back on the chemo, Henderson says he's taking it day by day and week by week. (Caroline Brassard)

Henderson grew up in the small town of Clandeboye, Man., and identifies as gender-queer. He spent a lot of time trying to protect himself and hide who he was.

"It was very painful, but at the same time gave me the impetus to get out so I could discover who I was," he said.

Henderson eventually moved to Toronto, where he worked as a stage and event manager for fashion shows, art parties, fundraisers and productions.

Queer, bright and beautiful

That's where he met his close friend and spiritual guide Eroca Nicols, who is working on the show with him.

Nicols is an artist and choreographer who has spent the last three years travelling the world researching death rituals, culminating in the performance piece Truthtelling, which will be on alongside Taking it to the Grave.

Nicols originally applied for a grant to do the research before Henderson was diagnosed, when the pair were focused on bringing queer representation to stage management and making art less elitist and more accessible.
Her first grant application was denied, but after Henderson's diagnosis, they reapplied and were approved.

Nicols went to Mexico, Brazil, Sweden and India. Then, she got a call from Henderson.

"Andrew called me and was like, 'I'm terminal,' and within two breaths he was like, 'I need you to convene my funeral ritual,'" said Nicols.

Now, Nicols is living in Clandeboye with Henderson, and the pair are planning the ritual and their "sister shows."

 "There's a unique opportunity in the way that Andrew is dying that he's been able to have creative control over the way he chooses to go from living into the next thing," said Nicols. "Mourning can happen in a queer, bright, beautiful way. It doesn't have to happen with everybody hanging their heads and wearing drab black."
Andrew Henderson, 28, is combining performance art with a living funeral for himself. Henderson has incurable cancer. (Caroline Brassard)

Henderson said he's been given a beautiful gift.

A stronger relationship with death

"I just hope people develop a stronger relationship with death and realize how much of a positive gift it actually is as opposed to something that is swept under the rug and not talked about openly," he said.

Henderson said people frequently repeated the same things when they learned his cancer was incurable – and while they were nice sentiments, it was clear they didn't have their own language about death.

"It's been a lot of convincing people that I'm actually OK with this, and I'm actually happy with what's happening, and I'm embracing it full-heartedly as I'm facing this and as my body is slowly going away," he said.

The shows will run together from Oct. 21 to 23 at AceArtInc in the Exchange District.

Tickets are limited, and information on how to get them will be available on the Taking it to the Grave Facebook page.

Andrew Henderson's living funeral and performance art show will have a manicure bar, glitter and cozy seating. He says he hopes it helps people develop their own language to talk about death and dying. (Caroline Brassard)

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