For nearly a decade, future nurses and doctors enrolled at the University of Virginia have attended a workshop at the school’s Fralin Museum of Art to help prepare them for end-of-life care, a historically under-discussed subject in medical schools that has been increasingly incorporated into curricula in recent years.

In 2014, a group of students approached the museum’s Academic Curator and Interim Co-Director Jordan Love with the hope of adding an art focus to their program HeArt of Medicine (HOM). Other facets of the student-run extracurricular initiative include panel discussions with hospice care workers, chaplains, and emergency room doctors; simulated conversations with patients about death; and last year, a gathering during which participants wrote and recited poetry. The students organize an annual meeting at the Fralin, and Love prepares a two-hour workshop that starts with looking at art and ends with discussing the work and its implications in small groups. Around 60 people attended the last event.

Farah Contractor, a third-year medical student who serves as one of HOM’s co-leaders, told Hyperallergic that she particularly remembers a conversation about Benjamin West’s 1770 painting “The Death of General Wolfe” and its glamorized depiction of dying. Contractor noted that the rendering was “completely the opposite” of what she was used to seeing in the hospital.

“[Death] is considered a taboo topic, especially in medicine,” Contractor said. “Nobody likes to talk about it. Nobody likes to be real about how not glamorous it is sometimes, and how much suffering is involved.”

Love said she thinks it’s easier to broach the topic of death through the lens of art than to do so when it is taking place in front of you. “It gets the students used to talking about death in a meaningful way, so that it becomes easier over time when they need to do it with families, or they need to do it with colleagues,” she said.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, “Cartloads to the cemetery, plate 64 from The Disasters of War” (made 1812–1815, published 1863) (courtesy the Art Institute Chicago)

Love and museum docents, including Professor Emerita Marcia Day Childress, who used to serve as a faculty advisor to HOM, use other paintings, prints, and photographs to cultivate different conversations: Rembrandt’s “The Raising of Lazarus” (c. 1630–32) to discuss the expectation that doctors act as miracle workers; Goya’s “Cartloads to the cemetery” (1812–15) to contemplate mass violence, disease, and death; William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (1732) to consider the moralization of dying; and Käthe Kollwitz’s “Woman with Dead Child” (1903) and War series (1918–22) to think about the impassioned emotions that emerge when someone dies. Danny Lyon’s 1963 photograph of a broken window at the bombed 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, helps address the subject of death in the context of systemic violence.

The annual meeting uses artwork to cultivate conversations around death. (photo courtesy HeArt of Medicine)

Contractor said she couldn’t remember a specific course or lecture that taught her how to talk about death and dying, but was lucky to be paired with residents who let her sit in on end-of-life conversations and even practice them.

“I felt really fortunate to have those experiences,” Contractor said. “But I think it’s something that you need to seek out.”

While medical schools have slowly begun to make space for end-of-life conversations, Love still sees the value in talking about death through art.

“It’s a vehicle for connecting ourselves to the past in a way that can get people more comfortable with talking about really difficult subject matter,” Love said.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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