Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery Asks the Big Questions at ROM Starting October 28

The eternal questions, examined through diverse perspectives of faith, science and culture. 

Calaca figurine. © ROM.TORONTO, October 16, 2023 – Prepare to meet death, in its many forms, and celebrate the ways in which life endures in Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery. Opening at ROM on October 28, 2023, and continuing until April 7, 2024, this exhibition is organized by the Field Museum and made possible by Lilly Endowment Inc. Within, visitors are asked the big questions about death and life that we are all destined to face: What is death? Do I have to die?  What will happen to my body? What will happen to my spirit? How will my death affect others?

“From death-defying microscopic animals to the heartache of grief, this exhibition explores the many facets of death,” says Josh Basseches, ROM Director & CEO. “In doing so, it opens up important conversations about one of life’s greatest mysteries.”

Guests learn how various cultures commemorate life and death, and discover clever ways plants and animals challenge death. Through objects drawn from the diverse collections of Chicago’s Field Museum, this interactive multi-sensory exhibition embraces how death and life are interconnected through culture and biology and how this can inspire meaningful reflection on grief, remembrance, and survival. Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery welcomes visitors of all ages to contemplate the eternal questions to this universal event and our inevitable fate.

“How we experience death, celebrate life, and wonder about what’s next are all part of what makes us human,” says Chen Shen, ROM Co-Chief Curator, Art & Culture. “This exhibition enables us to explore death through culture, science, and art, with an examination of the diversity of cultural practices and the myriad ways death is observed in the natural word.”

Within the exhibition, guests are surveyed at interactive stations, asking questions such as: “Doctors stopped a patient’s heart for 30 minutes during surgery — did they die?” “Aspen trees possess the ability to clone themselves — if the original aspen is cut down, has that tree really died?” “After passing, would you rather be buried or cremated?” “Do you want your funeral to be a packed affair or an intimate gathering of close friends or family?”.  These and other questions prompt guests to consider their own multi-faceted responses to the nature of death and of their lives.

For each visitor, consideration of the five questions asked may provide personal answers. This exhibition encourages guests to also contemplate differing perspectives on the nature of death expressed through rituals and cultural objects from diverse communities of past and present. Such examples highlight how death can be conceived in ways that may be quite different from their own outlook. Visitors may contemplate the meaning of an ofrenda, a household memorial for the traditional Mexican Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), or a fantasy coffin designed by Seth Kane Kwei for a Ghanaian fisherman whose boat-shaped casket symbolizes an important aspect of the deceased’s life. There are other items on display highlighting global cultural perspectives about death from China, Cambodia, Egypt, England, India, Italy, Japan, Haiti, Peru and more.

Death is not solely a human experience. Visitors can examine how nature responds to this biological challenge through a diversity of approaches. Microscopic tardigrades (water bears) are able to survive some of the harshest environments on Earth, while lungfish can burrow underground for years without food. Sea stars have a remarkable ability to regrow body parts, with some species able to regenerate an entire new body from just a severed limb. Such abilities challenge the notion of death for plants or animals that are able to regrow or clone themselves. Even in our bodies, cells multiply and die while the individual continues to live. Animals such as elephants, whales, horses, and other primates may also grieve at the loss of their own, while other species have thousands of offspring and never take care of their young. A whale fall diorama illustrates how an entire ecosystem is spawned from the corpse of a whale and that death is part of a continual and necessary process.

Death is around us every day whether we wish to acknowledge it or not. While many people may shy away from discussions about death with family and friends, the exhibition is designed to encourage dialogue and thoughts in a safe, and comfortable environment. Through visiting, people will reflect on death as part of the cycle of life and leave reflecting on life’s most universal experience. During the development of this exhibition the Field Museum consulted with representatives of communities whose worldviews are included in the exhibition and with knowledgeable professionals such as chaplains, crisis workers, hospice nurses, and morticians.

ROM is offering a number of events and workshops related to the exhibition.

ROM Connects: Archaeology and the Exploration of Life’s Greatest Mysteries. November 11, 2023, at 1 p.m. in the Signy and Cléophée Eaton Theatre. Cost: Free Admission with RSVP. Enter via President’s Choice School Entrance. 
Guest will hear from Gary Feinman, MacArthur Curator of Mesoamerican, Central American, and East Asian Anthropology and the curator of the original Field Museum exhibition, and from Justin Jennings, ROM Senior Curator, Archaeology of the Americas, for a conversation about their archaeological fieldwork and research as they delve in some of humanity’s biggest questions. Program Partner: The Archaeology Centre, University of Toronto

ROM U: Death Across the Ancient World - Ancient Egypt. Dec 3, Jan 28, Feb 25. 1 p.m. Cost: Public $90.
This workshop with Egyptologist Kei Yamamoto goes beyond the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings, and explores how ancient Egyptians during the Pharaonic Period cared for their loved ones in the afterlife. Learn about the offering formula and why it was an integral part of planning for death in ancient Egypt.

ROM U: Death Across the Ancient World - The Ancient Mediterranean. Dec 3, Jan 21, March 24. 1 p.m. Cost: Public $90.
ROM research associate Kate Cooper leads this workshop about the diverse ancient cultures who share the Mediterranean shores and covers how these cultures regarded death, cared for their deceased, and how various social factors influenced funerary rituals.

ROM U: Death Across the Ancient World - Ancient China. March 3, March 24. 1 p.m. Cost: Public $90.
Join senior curator and archaeologist Chen Shen for an in-depth exploration of the complex history and theologies related to death and burial in ancient China. From jade burial suits and Bronze-age burial objects to large-scale tomb superstructures, this workshop examines burial practices in ancient China and how, and why, they varied over time.

ROM U: Making Memories through Art. Dec 3, Jan 28, Feb 25. 1 p.m. Cost: Public $130.
This interactive and hands-on workshop, led by museum educator Deirdre Keleher, explores the importance of, and reasons behind, mourning rituals from 100,000-year-old hominid burials to Victorian England and contemporary Mexico’s festivities around Día de los Muertos .

Members will have the first opportunity to attend Death: Life’s Greatest Mystery during the Member Preview on Friday, October 27 and Saturday, October 28, 2023.

ROM Boutique is selling the exhibition-related book Beyond Death: Beliefs, Practice, and Material Expression

Please note: no real human remains are on display in this exhibition.