City Tech NEH Fellows Host End of Life Matters Forum

May 7, 2014 | New York City College of Technology

(l to r: C. Thorpe, M. Diaz, S. Taggart, M. Donsky, C. McIlwain, G. Cohen-Brown, D. Scannell) Photo credit: Dorian Valentine

(l to r: C. Thorpe, M. Diaz, S. Taggart, M. Donsky, C. McIlwain, D. Scannell, G. Cohen-Brown) Photo credit: Dorian Valentine

City Tech’s National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Fellows hosted the “End of Life Matters: Cultural Competence and Dying” forum on April 24 with guest speakers professor Charlton McIlwain, New York University, and award-winning photographer Shannon Taggart.

McIlwain, author of Death in Black and White: Death, Ritual and Family Ecology and an expert in the development of the African American funeral home industry, asked “What does culture matter when we talk about dying and burial rituals?” Starting with the slave trade, and the migration of a West African culture of death, McIlwain explained, African American burial and grieving practices gained significant cultural meaning.

Even though West African culture was as diverse as its number of tribes, slaves adhered to the general characteristics of death rituals so as not to upset the connection between the living, the newly dead and the ancestors. In general, African American practices focus on kinship, status of the deceased, the body and the public nature of both the burial and mourning. McIlwain believes that changes in or the derision of traditional African American death and burial practices contribute to the erosion of cultural meaning.

Shannon Taggart’s photography has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, Forbes, Psychology Today and many other media outlets. She is the co-founder of the Observatory, an art and events space in Brooklyn. Taggart grew up in upstate New York near the town of Lily Vale, which is known for its large Spiritualist community. Spiritualism gained popularity in the mid-1800s, fueled by the Victorian interest in communicating with the dead.

Once she had photographed the Spiritualists, Taggart was inspired to study the beliefs and rituals of a Haitian Vodou group in her Brooklyn neighborhood. Taggart describes her work with the Spiritualists and Vodou practitioners as “navigating the line between art and anthropology.” She showed photographs of mediums and those possessed engaging in “spiritual performance art,” claiming “both groups believe they are contributing to their community through these healing rituals.”

City Tech professor Mery Diaz pointed out that many in the audience are studying to work with diverse populations in allied health; she asked both panelists what the audience should take away from their presentation. “We should focus on culture as opposed to rationality,” said McIlwain. “Don’t question or be dismissive, rituals that may not make sense to you have meaning for these people.”

Taggart agreed: “Be open-minded to other people’s beliefs. That’s what I try to do with my photography. I want to open a dialogue—to start a conversation—about differences.”

City Tech’s NEH Comparative Perspectives on Health, Illness, and Healing Grant Fellows: Gwen Cohen-Brown, Sandra Cheng, Mery Diaz, Mary Sue Donsky (director of grant), Aida Egues, Barbara Grumet, Lisa Pope Fischer, Roxana Delbene Grossi, Laina Karthikeyan, Elaine Leinung, Kara Pasner, Denise Scannell, and Shauna Vey.