Dying, it's a natural part of life

Hayley stands beside her family's portrait. The dead are marked with red dots covering their faces, leaving her brother and herself remaining.

Hayley stands beside her family's portrait. The dead are marked with red dots covering their faces, leaving her brother and herself remaining.

In her mind's eye, Hayley West can still see her lifeless sister at the bottom of a pool.

The drowning of her three-year-old sibling left an indelible mark on the then six-year-old, one which drives her artistic passions today.

"After the accident everything was taken from the house. Her toys, books and clothes all disappeared and her name was never spoken again," West said.

"It wasn't until I was in my 20s and Dad was dying that I heard him call out her name."

The experience has led West to become a death literacy advocate. Her studio, The Departure, at The Mill in Castlemaine, functions as an artspace displaying death-themed creations. West displays two coffins, one a beautifully hand-crafted wooden inlay piece and another made of wicker on loan from the local funeral home. West re-purposes vessels from op-shops into urns and the atmosphere helps raise the often uncomfortable subject of death and burial and how it is dealt with in today's society.

"I want to get people talking about death, to be able to extend their knowledge and become empowered," West said.

"Some people's reaction is 'that is really morbid' to which I respond with '10 out of 10 people die'."

"It's going to happen. I'm trying to make it less uncomfortable for the person dying and their loved ones."

West said since people tended to die in nursing homes and hospitals instead of at home, the process had become alienating.

"Death is compulsory but it has become hospitalised, sanitised," she said.

"There is so much people don't know they can do which they often don't realise."

"You can ask to sit with the body or even have it at home which helps the grieving process."

She said when people were more involved with the process it gave them a stronger sense of closure.

"There are people known as death doolas, or soul midwives, who will come and help the family wash and dress the body.

"People are allowed to do everything themselves. I know of someone who recently had the coffin in the back of a ute.

"In the past people wore black as a public sign they were grieving, now we seem to only see signs of it when football players wear black armbands."

West's quest also extends to a monthly death cafe. The concept, with its own webpage, is held at the Old Castlemaine Gaol and works as an opportunity for a philosophical discussion to help encourage an open conversation about dealing with life's final journey.

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