Dancing with Death: Reading, Writing, and Talking with it Too

In western cultures, there is a taboo associated with talking about death and dying, as though any utterance of death may bring it upon one’s head. Although historically, specific attitudes, beliefs, and practices around death and dying have regularly changed, the taboo itself remains. Recently, the Death Positive Movement has begun working to change public perception and erase the taboo in order to help people better prepare for the inevitable.

The Gemmell Collection in the library, is a collection of editions of the Dance of Death, which was bequeathed by the Glasgow physician and magistrate, William Gemmell (1859 – 1919).

The Dance with Death is a, “grisly motif typically featuring decaying corpses or skeletons who lead the living in a dance to their demise. The dance represents all members of society, from the wealthy and powerful to the innocent and humble, meeting their end at the hands of Death.”(3)

  • There were 41 original woodcuts done by Hans Lutzelburger in Lyon, France from drawings done by Hans Holbein (best known for his painting of Henry VII).
  • The collection spans about 500 years with the originals and reproductions from the 1500s up to the 1900s.
  • The earliest example of the Dance with Death is in mural art from 1424 in the Holy Innocents Church in Paris.
  • The belief is that these images from Holbein and Lutzelburger came about when in the 15th Century, “because this was a time of crop failure, climate change, pestilence, the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War. The mortality rate was significantly high and the average man could only expect to live to 50. Public executions were commonplace and, unlike today, a person could not expect to reach adulthood without having seen a dead body.” (3)
  • The Dance with Death is emblem art, which is a form of didactic art meant both to entertain and to instruct.
  • The Dance with Death is also a Memento Mori: an object serving as a warning or reminder of death, such as a skull, skeleton, or other artistic representations of death.

The goal of my Hunterian Associates project is to encourage public engagement with the images in the Gemmell Collection through creative writing responses, which will take the form of short writings including prose poetry, poetry, short essay, and/or flash fiction/nonfiction.

I will facilitate writing responses to the images through in-person creative writing workshops and electronic submissions for those that cannot make the workshops. I look forward to seeing where people’s imaginations and interactions with the Dance with Death images takes us. All these responses will come together to create a one-time e-publication that will be hosted here.

My hope is that through our collective creativity we can examine the memento mori in a modern-day context and thereby explore our feelings on mortality, and come to be a little more comfortable thinking and talking about death.


Have I piqued your interest? Then it’s TIME TO TRY IT

The images (at the bottom of the page) themselves may provide enough inspiration for you to jump right into writing. But if you’re wondering where to start here are some ideas:

  • You can respond with poetry, describe the piece in detail or notice what is missing.
  • You can ask questions of the piece, or write a short story inspired by it – maybe describing the moments before or after the scene shown.
  • You can use the content of the piece to jump into a discussion of modern-day mortality or write about it within the historical context in which its placed.
  • You can compare two or more of the images and on, and on: the world is your oyster here.

If you’re still finding yourself stuck for inspiration, here are a few death & dying related questions that might spark that creative fire. Try using these in combination with a chosen image:

  • At what times and places do you fear death the most?
  • Do you think death is natural or un-natural?
  • What is the difference between a ‘good death’ and a ‘bad death’?
  • Where would you like to be at the time you die, and what would you be doing?
  • Does love end at death?
  • What thoughts do you think you’ll have when you are dying?
  • List the ways you deny the reality that you definitely are going to die:
  • What do you believe you will regret the most when you are dying?
  • Is there anyone or any cause you’d willing die for?
  • Do you think of death as a friend or as an enemy – or both?


References & Photo Credits:

  1. Hunterian Associates Program – Dancing with Death Project Page. Includes information about upcoming events. 
  2. Featherly, Jessica. I Will Die: A Creative Journal for Mortals. Deep Down Press, 2016.
  3. Photos and quotes – Used with permission of Archives & Special Collections, University of Glasgow Library. Gemmell Collection.


Images (more to come – with descriptions!)