Last Words: Talking, thinking, and making music about death

Crystal Meneses brings art, words, and music together in an effort to put death back in the community’s hands.

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Crystal Meneses’ task is not an easy one, as is often the case with fundraising. Throw in death, concerts, and cemeteries, and the conversation is often over before Meneses has even started. Those who stick around to hear Meneses out, however, may find that while the Last Words Project is about topics not usually discussed on arts and entertainment pages, it is for a commendable cause: raising money to provide shelter for houseless veterans who are or should be in hospice.

Meneses is a Lincoln City arts activist whose creative disciplines include music, visual arts, and writing. She is founder of Activate Arts, a nonprofit that “addresses the urban-to-rural gap by bringing rural and urban communities together.” She’s also a death doula, which is essentially about helping people who have lost a loved one.  

 “We used to witness bodies at the end of life,” says Crystal Meneses, an arts activist and death doula. “I feel we had that taken away by the death corporations. That’s why we have such a hard time with the grief.”
“We used to witness bodies at the end of life,” says Crystal Meneses, an arts activist and death doula. “I feel we had that taken away by the death corporations. That’s why we have such a hard time with the grief.”

In that role, Meneses learned firsthand how difficult it is for an impoverished, dying person to find even the most basic care. That inspired her to create the Last Words Project.  Meneses invites people to write letters and deposit them in “altars” placed in three Lincoln City parks until the end of June. Meneses suggests writers address three questions: Have you had someone in your life die? What were your last words together? Do you wish you could have said something different?

Meneses will use those letters to create songs that will be played at concerts this summer. She also plans to create an album of the music.  

We talked with Meneses about the project, fundraising, and death. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become involved with dying and death?

Meneses: In 2014, I gave birth to my daughter and I had this enormous gratefulness for life. But that same year, seven people I was very close to died. It’s a very overwhelming feeling. People weren’t talking about death. I was feeling very isolated. There was a huge calling in me to honor the people I love, to find a better way to support people who are grieving and support people who are dying.

How does a death doula do that?

The work I do is about putting death back into the community’s hands.  We used to take care of our loved ones after they died. We used to witness bodies at the end of life. I feel we had that taken away by the death corporations. That’s why we have such a hard time with the grief.

This is a cultural thing with me, too. My earliest memory of death is my grandpa’s funeral in the Philippines. His family sent the video of the funeral. I’d never seen anything like that. My grandpa’s body was in the living room of my auntie’s house. His life was celebrated for days. People were laughing and eating and telling stories and playing music. My dad looked at me and said, “I want you to do this for me.” In 2014, realized I wouldn’t be able to honor my dad the way he wants to be honored.

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Why?

It’s the normal story. Someone dies; the mortuary comes, picks them up and that’s it. Mortuaries are billion-dollar businesses.You plan the funeral with them and give them a ton of money. There’s no legacy, no stories, no celebration. The mortuaries cover up what death looks like. Death doulas can do body-washing, home memorials. Even before a person dies, we’re sitting with them and gathering stories. We talk; we do legacy projects through art and music and storytelling. We also plan with the person, what do you want your end of life to look like? We talk through all of this stuff. And then we’re there with the family.

The altar in Siletz Bay Park is called “Magenta Horse.” “I received so many letters from people who are grieving their pets,” Crystal Meneses says. Photo by: Crystal Meneses
The altar in Siletz Bay Park is called “Magenta Horse.” “I received so many letters from people who are grieving their pets,” Crystal Meneses says. Photo by: Crystal Meneses
The altar in Siletz Bay Park is called “Magenta Horse.” “I received so many letters from people who are grieving their pets,” Meneses says. Photos by: Crystal Meneses

How did that lead you to the Last Words Project?

A lot of my death doula work was with houseless people, people who are marginalized. (Meneses prefers “houseless” rather than “homeless,” because, she says, “homeless” becomes an identity and using “houseless” moves away from the stigma and associations of that identity.) 

I learned a lot about people who die in poverty. For example, hospice does not come to people who are not housed. Some programs are starting to go to shelters and work with different organizations, but when I started this project, hospice was not going to houseless folks. People who are houseless don’t have access to making the choices for the ones they love, because they don’t have enough money.

For now, we’re focusing on veterans. My goal is to train veterans to be death doulas … passing on what I know about caring for the dead. Do Good Multnomah is working with me, setting aside two apartments for me to set up Embrace Space, a death doula care space. I need funds to pay the rent. This is the Last Words Project.

In early May, you placed altars in three Lincoln City parks — Siletz Bay Park, Josephine Young Memorial Park, and Nesika Park — but you’re hosting the concerts in and around Portland. Why not one place or another?

The altars are at the coast because the coast is a place of serenity. We have beautiful wooded spaces and the ocean. I wanted the altars to be a spiritual pilgrimage. Lincoln City is a tourist town and many urban folks come here regularly. 

I chose to partner with Metro because they are more progressive in how to create community around death. My hope is that rural will see how urban is creating community in our death spaces and open up their cemeteries to the community in future summers. My big goal is to tour Oregon cemeteries with the Last Words Project for many years. I am grateful to Metro, because they understand how important it is to create community around death, grief, and loss. 

How’s it going so far?

The response has been mixed. When I say death doula, folks kind of close up. I am really praying that we can sell out these concerts, but the media is having trouble onboarding because it’s about death. They don’t want to talk about death in this way. I was just reading some of the letters dropped off in the altars. I got one from three little kids who were siblings. They wrote a letter to their dog that passed away. I have letters that just say thank you for this healing space. There are also a few people who say, “I don’t like  this installation. It should not be in my natural space.”

Crystal Meneses says she decorated the altars with found objects from the garbage or thrift stores. The one in Nesika park is called the “Golden Chachkie,” because it is filled with trinkets. “It kind of reminded me of my grandma,” she says. “She loved antiques.” Photo by: Crystal Meneses
Meneses says she decorated the altars with found objects from the garbage or thrift stores. The one in Nesika Park is called the “Golden Chachkie,” because it is filled with trinkets. “It kind of reminded me of my grandma,” she says. “She loved antiques.” Photo by: Crystal Meneses

Tell us about the concerts.

They’re in August in partnership with Metro. The big concert where we’re doing a live album and inviting 100 people will be in Lone Fir Cemetery. We want to capture the community coming together.

How much are tickets?

I wanted this to be accessbile, so the ticket is free. I just ask for a donation, whatever you can. If you can’t give a donation, educating yourself is doing your part also. Some folks might just want to donate food, blankets, anything we may need. I don’t want people not to come because of the cost. It’s about building the community first, we’ve got to build that community first.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

About the author

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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