Citywide Reimagine End of Life Festival asks ‘hard questions’ about death and grief

If given another chance to speak to a loved one who has died, what would you say?

A phone booth, offering a private outlet to express unsaid thoughts and feelings, will be set up at Union Theological Seminary at the end of October as part of the first-ever New York City Reimagine End of Life Festival.

The small room with a telephone and a book of conversation prompts is the product of artist Morgan Brown’s own grief, stemming from when she lost her mother in a car accident in 2012. Since then, Brown has lived a nomadic life, seeking her own kind of healing. In her travels around the U.S., the 28-year-old found that many people had things left unsaid and regrets concerning people they’ve lost.

She had a thought while driving from Arkansas to Texas: “What if I had a phone line? What if people could pop inside and say the things they wish they had said?”

Conversations I Wish I Had” has popped up in galleries and at the first Reimagine Festival in San Francisco in April, and Brown says it’s been a healing experience for those who have gone in.

“It’s surprising how many conversations are not sad — some are really funny, lighthearted and sweet,” she told amNewYork. 

Participants can opt-in to record their one-way conversation for a podcast Brown plans to put together in the future, in a storytelling format like the podcast, “The Moth.”

The phone booth seemed the perfect fit for the festival since both focus on starting the hard conversation about death and end-of-life experiences, she said. 

“I think this is an accessible way to talk about this conversation that feels safe,” she said. “You can ask hard questions and grapple with things that are being talked about. It’s really inviting.”

A lot of people may feel uneasy and put off by a festival about death, but according to its founder, Brad Wolfe, it’s also about celebrating life now rather than after it’s gone.

The festival, which will have a total of 350 events across the city, includes comedy shows, film screenings, discussions, including one with cartoonist Roz Chast and another about racial disparities at the end of life, art exhibitions, live music with artists like Brad Corrigan and Chadwick Stokes of Dispatch, dance, spiritual events like yoga, a blessing of the animals, a Day of the Dead festival and more. It even has obituary writing lessons and end-of-life planning info sessions.

“Initially, people recoil pretty quickly,” Wolfe told amNewYork. “Once I explain it’s not just about death but about celebrating life and they start reflecting on their own lives and the people they’ve lost, they get really curious and excited.”

More than 200 organizations have partnered with Reimagine, which is a nonprofit, to create a community-driven festival that has both opening and closing night events — Oct. 27 and Nov. 3.

It’s no coincidence that it’s scheduled around Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, either. People are already reflecting on death to some degree, Wolfe said, so why not try to reframe it as a time of meaning and take time to honor people we’ve lost?

“Death is so real. You can’t sugarcoat it,” he said. “I like to say that grief is like love turned upside down. It’s like a Jackson Pollack painting. It has all the emotions … and these conversations are trying to explore them and what it means to be human.”

Wolfe, 38, is no stranger to grief — he grew up hearing stories from both of his grandparents, who survived the Auschwitz camp during World War II, and lost a friend to a rare form of pediatric cancer when he was in college.

His experiences ultimately led to the Reimagine End of Life Festival, which launched a prototype in 2016 and officially launched in April this year in San Francisco. 

“To see the hunger people have to express themselves creatively around this and tap into their own lives and feelings to put something forth has been really incredibly inspiring to see and gives me hope that this is a conversation that can be taken all across the country,” he said. “New York is a city that has dealt on a citywide level with loss. It struck me after Sept. 11 how New York and the country came together and built community in a way we’re missing today.  Maybe we don’t have to have a tragedy to inspire us to reflect on matters of life and death and get past pettiness and come together around something universal.”

Inspiring action, sparking conversation with loved ones and providing the tools to do that are at the forefront of the festival.

“We’ll keep going until we spark a social movement,” he said.

The festival runs from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3. The full schedule can be found at letsreimagine.org.

“Reimagine | End of Life” in New York (Oct 27 – Nov 3, 2018) from Reimagine on Vimeo.