Death as a Work of Art

A creek in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas in the Fall. (Getty Images)

Alice Driver grew up in Arkansas in a house her father built in pieces over decades. She was raised by her father, a potter, and her mother, a weaver, as part of a community of back-to-the-landers who wanted a life of self-sufficiency apart from mainstream American commercialism. At Oxford American, she shares the story of her dad’s wish to build his own tomb on his own land. “He wanted his death, like his life, to be a work of art—a tomb he designed and filled with ceramics—and one that would allow him to define death on his own terms.”

…my sense of life and death was informed by nature. As a result, I felt only curious, at home with natural life cycles and possessed by the idea that I needed to find my place among the land and its creatures, to test my mettle…Under piles of hay, I found nests of baby copperheads, their bodies well-fed, hourglass stripes glistening. I swam across the Little Mulberry River when it was brown, swollen, angry from flooding, fighting against the strength of the current. I was raised in equal parts by my parents and by the land.

For them, buying the land was my dad’s way of committing to a different way of life than the one he had witnessed growing up. His father had a corporate job and hated it; he smoked and drank and was rarely around to be a father to his five boys. He died of a heart attack when my dad was fourteen, and at the funeral home, my dad remembers burning up with anger because, he said, “They were torturing my mother and trying to get her to spend more money on a casket because my father deserved it.” Much of his life, as I’ve witnessed it over the past thirty-eight years, has been a reaction to his dad’s life and death.

As dusk set in, he looked out over the field toward the Little Mulberry River. “This is one of the few places on the planet where I feel connected,” he said. “I didn’t want to join the system. I wanted to create my own reality, and I’m going to create my own reality on the way out too.”

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