‘Last Words’ Project Aims to Create Community Around Death

Crystal Meneses wears many hats. She’s a death doula, a chaplain for a local hospice organization, a music therapist, a death cafe facilitator, a grief counselor, a volunteer for several charities and transport worker for a mortuary.

But the 39-year-old Oregon native is also an artist and musician and the founder of Activate Art, a nonprofit working to bridge the urban-rural divide.

So perhaps it is not surprising that surrounded by death (she lost seven people close to her in 2014) and inspired by the power of art, she created the Last Words project.

The project began this spring with four altars near the coast, set up to collect letters about loved ones who had died.

Then she gathered about 75 letters to create songs which she’ll perform with a 10-piece band at four Portland-area cemeteries.

Some letters were simple. “I miss you dad. Where are you?” read one. A child wrote, “Mom thinks I’m over you, but I’m not.”

Meneses thinks these concerts are the first ever at an Oregon cemetery and she’s spent considerable time working with her partners at Metro, being sure to follow the laws governing cemeteries. It was a custom 100 years ago for families to take picnics to the cemetery, and she’s hoping these concerts will bring people together so these spaces are not forgotten.

Her work in various parts of the death industry has shown her the value of opening conversations about death. And in her advocacy work, she’s become concerned about the isolation that some, especially those in poverty and without shelter, suffer. Her work has brought her to prisons and hotel rooms where not everyone gets to have what the privileged consider a “good death.”

Meneses hopes to raise money by recording the concerts and creating and then selling live albums, using the proceeds to fund Oregon’s first death doula care space to be used to care for houseless veterans in partnership with Do Good Multnomah and Embrace Death Doula Care.

Beyond the fundraising, her hope is to open conversations about death and build community to take the fear out of the conversation.

For her, talking and thinking about death has been a “gift.” She says awareness of death can bring about “radical change” in life as it did for her when she recently got divorced and moved to the coast. Her work as a therapist and an artist has helped her see the value in opening the door to the pain of grief and loss.

“Music and art make places of pain accessible,” she says, explaining that people can often hear music about death and grief, even if they can’t talk about it.

And though there is grief, there’s also love, as her lyrics convey in her song “Only Love”

Im in the wind, Im in the sky, Im by your side when you cry. Im in your eyes, Im in your smile, Im guiding you forever child.

Find more information and registration for the Last Words concerts on the Eventbrite website and Facebook. Tickets are free, but a $15 donation will help fund efforts to provide end-of-life care for houseless veterans.

Multnomah Cemetery: August 26

Jones Cemetery: August 27

Lone Fir Cemetery (live album recording): August 28

Douglass Cemetery: August 29

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