Death Letter Project: 50 people share their thoughts about death

Photo-artist Tina FiveAsh says death wasn't talked about much when she was growing up, which only heightened her fear of it. This was her solution.

Photo-artist Tina FiveAsh reached out to 50 people in various lines of work to learn about death

Jennifer Kemarre Martiniello, Raphael Mhashilkar, Natalie Grace, Yahya Safi, Bob Boyd (Submitted by Tina FiveAsh)
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For a long time, Australian photo-artist Tina FiveAsh found the mystery of death terrifying. 

"I was actually having panic attacks in the middle of night," says FiveAsh. "I would just wake up and I would be in this grip of absolute fear. It's odd when you don't understand something, or to be that scared." 

FiveAsh says death wasn't talked about much when she was growing up, which only heightened her fear of it. She started reading books about death to understand as much about it as she could. 

When FiveAsh decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Visual Arts, she knew she wanted to explore death in some way. But it wasn't until late 2014 that the idea for the Death Letter Project came to her. 

Australian photo-artist Tina FiveAsh is the creator of the Death Letter Project (Tina Fiveash and Nick Moir)

"I want to ask people two questions: what is death and what happens when we die? And I wanted them to write [their answer] in a one or two-page letter and I would photograph them," says FiveAsh. 

People from all walks of life have participated in the project. FiveAsh has received letters from a young mortician who treated her own father's body to a veterinarian who aims to provide peaceful deaths for the animals she treats. 

Handling letters with care

FiveAsh sees it as a honour to receive people's thoughts about death, so she reads each letter with care. 

"Everything is so rushed in today's society and I want this project to be about reflection. So I always just create a quiet space, there's no one else around and I can just completely focus on this beautiful story," says FiveAsh. "It's just very, very touching beholding these letters, and for people to be opening up to that extent. It's a real privilege to receive these letters."

It's just very, very touching beholding these letters, and for people to be opening up to that extent. It's a real privilege to receive these letters.- Tina FiveAsh

FiveAsh says some letters even give her goosebumps. She points to a letter she received from a paramedic named Benjamin Gilmour. 

He described the look on people's faces before they die as "a look that says, 'Hang on, but, I haven't even thought about death properly yet!" 

Benjamin Gilmour is a paramedic who submitted a letter to the Death Letter Project. (Submitted by Tina FiveAsh)

"I'd like to think this life-force carries on somewhere else, perhaps in another form, re-inhaled by the Universe, re-shaped by our maker," writes Gilmour.

"And I have a hunch there is a God. But the wise are those who know how little they know. Death asks me questions and these are part of my life-long spiritual journey of discovery."


Click LISTEN to hear what Tina FiveAsh thinks death is and to hear recordings of some of the letters she received. 

FiveAsh says her initial series of 50 letters and portraits is just the beginning. She's already planning a second series in the hopes that the project can help liberate people from their fear of death, just as it has liberated her.  


What do you think happens when we die?

We're throwing FiveAsh's questions back out to you! Send us an email with your thoughts on what happens when we die to tapestry@cbc.ca. We'll read some your thoughts on air in the coming weeks.