Dancing with Death

Dancing with Death: Reading, Writing, and Talking with it Too – A Hunterian Associates Project

Check out the collection of inspiring writing from our creative writing workshop on the E-PUBLICATION – EPUB- Dancing with Death – And Writing 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 images designed by the artist, Hans Holbein, and subsequently recreated over the years by others, portray people in all walks of life being taken by death (often represented as a skeleton).

  • There were 41 original woodcuts done by Lutzelburger from drawings done by Hans Holbine.
  • The collection spans about 500 years with the originals and reproductions from the 1500s up to the 1900s.

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.”

  • 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 as is behind me – the death mask of William Hunter.

The goal of this 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 encourage 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 our feelings on mortality and come to be a little more comfortable thinking and talking about death.


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.



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