Podcast #139 Seeing Death as Part of Life: Changing Culture Through Film – Johanna Lunn, Director

Several years ago, film Director Johanna Lunn set out to make a movie about death. What she quickly discovered was that there were enormous amounts of material and innumerable possibilities for directions this could take. So she co-founded a website, whenyoudie.org, and ultimately created three films, each one a compilation of interviews with experts, musings by the narrator, and gorgeous views of nature. What can we learn from listening to experts who’ve spent their careers with folks who are near death? What can we learn about living from exploring dying? Here is one thing I’ve learned: changing the culture means learning a lot more about what we have kept at arm’s length.



Hi, I’m Diane Hullet, and you’re listening to the Best Life, Best Death podcast. And today I’ve got a wonderful guest who I’ve had on before. Welcome to Johanna Lunn. 

Hello. I’m so happy to be here with you, Diane. 

I’m so happy to have another conversation about another one of director Johanna’s best films.

Uh, Johanna’s the, wow, gosh, what do we even say? Are you the founder of the When You Die project? Is that the right term? 

That’s right. The founder, co founder actually, my business partner and I, but I’d say I’m the creative behind it. Yes. 

Awesome. So when you die. org is this phenomenal website, which if listeners are listening and they haven’t been to it before, I so strongly encourage you to go and check it out.

It’s a thoughtful, curated, beautiful, I don’t know, combines creative with education kind of website about death and dying, and I just think it’s one of the best ones out there. So when you die. org and you know, Johanna is the kind of creative force behind that. I mean, tell us a little bit about the website, how that came about, and then we’re going to talk about your third film.

Well, I don’t think there’s anything in the One Year Die project that doesn’t come back to the films. Um, because it all started as one film, and I did it in a very unconventional way. Usually, a filmmaker has a script, they know who they want to interview and what they want them to say, more or less. And that’s, you know, people think documentary, oh, that’s not scripted.

It is scripted. But I didn’t want to do it that way because I knew that I didn’t know. And I have a lot of history at a young age with loss and, and very complicated grief and all of this stuff. So this is a passion project that I’ve carried with me for a long time. Many, many, many years throughout my professional career.

And now I’m like, okay, I’m going to do a film about death and we’re really going to look into this whole area, how we die, you know, and what I discovered as I went forward and was doing tons and tons of research was that there was so much more to this idea about how we die and what it means to be dying, the culture.

The physiology, the whole thing that I just had all this material. So I said to my business partner, James Hoagland, I said, we, we need a website and we need it now because there’s this really great material and we’ve got to put it out there, whether it goes in a film or not. And that’s how the website started.

It was a place to start sharing some of these ideas and some of these people who’ve been spending their entire life at the bedside or researching. Around how to die better 

And that’s maybe what’s so unique and powerful about the website and the films is that they rely so much on conversations with I guess what we’d call experts, but experts ranging from doulas to researchers to psilocybin professionals to you know, therapists to grief experts, like this huge range of people who interact with people at the end of life, hospice doctors, palliative care doctors, nurses.

And so the voices that come forward and the experience that comes forward, I think that’s what stands out for me about when you die. It’s, uh, it’s this, I don’t want to call it a weight of experience because it doesn’t feel weighty. It’s more like the breath. Of experience of these people. So So yeah, you thought you were making one film.

Instead, you launched this incredible website, which is a platform for all kinds of information. And then you started to really carve out these films. So Johanna and I’ve talked in the past about film number one. In the realm of death and dreaming film. Number two, Oh, I’m spacing the name 

saying goodbye, preparing for death.

That one. And now film number three, the architecture of death. So, you know, if somebody, if somebody is listening and they haven’t seen any of these films, and they, I think it’s important to say they don’t have to be watched in order, they could be, but they don’t have to be. So if someone, you know, went and watched.

Film number three, the architecture of death. What would they see? 

Well, I’ll first say one thing that all three films have in common. Um, well, one is that it is all people who have spent their careers in this field. Um, so we don’t follow any individuals as they die. They’re beautiful films already, and I know you show them, Diane, and they’re so helpful, and we learn a lot from them.

I wanted to hear from these experts. But what I wanted to explore as well, or what revealed itself for me to explore, and that all three of these films have in common, is that, you know, death isn’t always the answer. Just about the body, you know, I mean we learn and I learned that you know This idea the body knows how to die and that was a radical concept because you just think you’re alive and then you’re dead And it really doesn’t work that way.

It is a process that we pass through. So, architecture of death, the inner world of dying, is really about how the body dies, but it’s also about the emotional world around us and the family constellation and how things can change in that emotional world. For the person who’s dying, but also for the family and loved ones, and then there’s a spiritual dimension to dying and what does that look like and how does it support the dying process as well.

So I think that, you know, of, of the three elements of dying, you know, we probably need to work on the emotional. ego level of stuff, because that doesn’t know how to die. But the body knows, and our spirit knows. So that is really what Architecture of Death, um, focuses on the final, you know, months, weeks, days leading up to death.

To death. 

I love that. And this differentiation, I think is really important. Like the film, the last ecstatic days or the film last flight home. These are both movies that are out there that follow somebody dying and the family’s process around that. But as you said, this film is much more, uh, experts speaking and talking, being interviewed, but it’s put together in a very natural way.

And it’s. interspersed with you as the narrator reflecting on death and on questions you have. And I think that your voice is really the thread that ties the three films together. And I love that about it. And then these experts saying what they’ve seen. And this, I think what you’ve just said is so exciting.

There’s a Canadian death doula and educator who I just adore Dr. Sarah Kerr of the Center for Sacred Death Care. And she talks about how most people believe that the body and soul separated death and that we have a lot of knowledge and narrative and story about the body. We know, we know what happens, or we think we know, or we have like a structure upon which to hang that right.

But that what happens to the soul Our current secular, I’m just going to call it secular dominant culture. It doesn’t mean everybody everywhere has this, but much of secular dominant Western culture lacks a story for what happens to the soul and that this as humans and the big long history of humanity.

This is, this is kind of new that we have no story for that. And then you’re even bringing in this element and saying there’s this huge emotional component. And we don’t have a lot of story. Again, by story, I mean like structure, narrative, understanding, upon which we can say, Oh, this is what’s happening.

Um, so I think that’s so powerful. And what are some of the components of that? I don’t know, pick one, maybe that emotional piece. What are some components that. The experts in your film talk about 

sure, well, there’s a whole range of things and I think, you know, there’s this one statement in the film that the body knows how to die, but the ego doesn’t.

And that in many ways is the leverage point. For the film itself, because, or the film, or the One You Die project, because, and your work as well, we’re saying, we need to learn about this, we need to talk about this, we need to, and through education, we reduce our fear, and death becomes part of life, as opposed to the thing that you’re holding at bay.

So all of these things are trying to, you know, I hate the word normalize. My husband said to me the other day, I don’t want to normalize death, you know, and I’m like, oh, no, no, not like that. Like, we’re all falling off, you know, dead at a blink of the hat or whatever, a blink of the eye. Um, but the idea that it becomes like the seasons, you know, spring and summer and fall and winter and, you know, babies and old people and death, like, they’re just these seasons of our life.

So it’s part of it and we’re not pushing it away. I know all the people who are listening to this absolutely know, but, but it, it is, it’s, it’s part of that, um, you know, why we need to learn about the emotional element is because it’s the part of us that is doing all the resistance. You know, the, the ego and the emotions are closely tied.

And so, um, by, by learning about what happens when we die. Um, then we soften our grip on our fear. So some of the kinds of, you know, we could really look at death as a healing period. You know, I love that Dr. Amri Shehzad brought that up in our interview. And I think it was one of those mind blowing moments for me.

It’s like death could be a healing opportunity because for the person who’s dying, making meaning of their life. You know, kind of like, where do you have your regrets? Where do you have, um, uh, unfinished business? Are there people you wanna talk to? Are there, you know, really making meaning? And this is a rich area where people can help the person who’s dying with reflecting on their life.

Really powerful. Um, and then also for, for family members, the idea that, you know, in a family, it’s like, I have a piece of my daughter and my daughter has a piece of me, you know, and for one of us to die would be losing me. I would be dying too. Um, so we have to understand that when we’re working with family because the grief obviously starts, you know, pretty much when you get the diagnosis, you know, and it grows.

And so all of this too is really about creating a foundation for healthy grieving so that we can understand that, you know, life will go on without that person. I mean, it’s an intellectual understanding that eventually becomes more rooted in our hearts and in our emotional world. Um, so understanding that, you know, I love this family constellation thing for some families, and this has happened in my family.

My brothers and I definitely reverted back to when we were children, when my father died, like, and it was just sort of mind blowing. It’s like, who are you people? Oh, my God. 

Playing out those roles. Yeah, like playing, like falling back into the roles and then watching how that played out. 

Yeah, that’s right.

And so if you kind of know that that can happen in your family and that you’re really grappling with your own death as well as the death of the person that you love, um, then that, those, those kinds of elements can be cared for in a different way. You know, instead of, you know, the worst case scenario, which I’ve also witnessed in my own family, is where everything went sideways and it was a very fraught death, you know, and, and we had Horrible fights and all of that stuff because we really couldn’t face the death.

I love the word fraught. I think that’s such a good word. And I think it’s interesting that we often people have experiences of the physical downward slide being fraught, right? Like that could be one way that this goes. People go, Oh, it was so terrible. And we were in and out of the emergency room and this happened and that happened and nobody could agree.

It So there’s the physical fraughtness, but then there’s this emotional fraught. And I always think, you know, if you aren’t having conversations ahead of time, the chances of that emotional fraught just go through the roof, right? I think we could come up with some kind of a algorithm that would say, you know, the lower the conversation, the higher the fraught level in the, in the final weeks and, and how to do that differently.

But to do any of that. You have to acknowledge death, 

right? Absolutely. Absolutely. So creating a culture that’s open to death. You know, can give us the opportunity to do that. I mean, I think that’s the ultimate goal with all of these films. And, and I think certainly, um, by the time we get to Architecture of Death, if you watch them sequentially, which, as you said, you don’t have to, they, each one stands alone, um, but there is a certain build that can happen too.

And when you get to that point, you can really see the benefit of having had the conversation. Because, what a beautiful thing, if you can really support someone who’s dying, who, where we know the difference between trying to cure, And supporting when we die like this is a, this is that threshold that we have to pass as a society that, you know, curing comes up to a point and then the time for healing it for curing is done.

And then the healing time begins. And if we can really see that and we can really get clear with our medical professionals, tell us where are we at in this, you know, of course, we could do countless procedures. painful procedures that you’ll never even get back to where you were as you were declining for having done these different procedures, you know.

So if we could get really clear together about that time where we move to the different team, because that’s it, you know, it’s like our medical people are trained to cure us and we want them to be good technicians. We want them to do those things, but we also want them to learn how to hand it off. You know, when we moved to the hospice doctor and we learned, you know, move into really managing pain so people can have a good quality of life and, and really work with all of those things, making meaning of life, working with regrets, um, bringing joy.

Like with my father, the one thing he wanted was, um, to, uh, see the autumn leaves one more time. And my brother picked him up out of the bed. Put him in the car and they had a glorious drive together, simple, but it meant everything to him. 

Beautiful, beautiful. What a, what a good example of, of just a simple, meaningful moment.

That was an experience that was probably moving and healing for both your brother And your father and everyone who heard that that was happening, you know, there was this sense of, Oh, he got to do that again. And of course, we’re talking here about, you know, deaths where, I mean, we’ve most mostly been alluding to kind of deaths where we know that dying is coming, or we can know that dying is coming, right?

So this is different than a sudden death. And it just is. And I love, you know, hospice nurse and educator Barbara Carnes uses the phrase precious time. And I think other people have picked up on that too. So When there’s a diagnosis and when the diagnosis of a disease has turned to a final kind of phase, I don’t love the word terminal, but you know, the, the sort of end phase, as you said, the healing phase where we’ve moved out of cure and we’re just being with quality of life.

When that has turned, there’s this, there’s this real sense of that precious time that that can be time incredibly well used if you know it’s coming. And I don’t know, I love the idea of changing, you know, our cultural norm that that’s precious time. And by changing the cultural norm, we’re trying to then change family’s norms and experiences.

And there’s, it seems like there’s always someone who’s sort of. You know, maybe it was living farther away who kind of swoops in and is like, no, wait, wait, we’ve got to, we’ve got to. And so getting everyone on the same page, getting everyone to understand that this is a different phase is one of the challenges of this emotional life at this time.

So I like to think, you know, I think. I don’t know. I’ve just found in this work that films are so powerful. They somehow take people to a different place than just talking about it or reading a book. Is that your experience too? 

Well, I’m a filmmaker, so I already believe that. 

Yeah. Why do you think that is?

What do they do? 

Well, I think, and I’ll speak specifically to the, to the trilogy, but I think it’s true, you know, in a lot of films is that you can bring a lot of ideas. You know, and I think our films are very conversational. It’s like all these different people I spoke to, I put them in one room and it was this film.

And so they’re all talking to each other. You know, and I, I think when they watch it, they’re like, Oh, that’s so cool because so and so picked up on what I was, you know, they, they like it because it says if they were in one room and someone is furthering the idea that they had or elaborating, you know, and supporting it or, or one way or another.

So, you know, I think that films are powerful because they can bring, you know, the intellect and, and heart together. In a very powerful way, because it’s not just what people are saying, it’s also bringing imagery and film and music, so it has an emotional response too, so we’re listening to it with our head and our heart, and um, I think that’s the big difference, and it’s safe.

Watching a movie is a very safe thing to do. 

Oh, interesting. Why? How so? How is it? You might not 

be wanting to talk about it, but you could watch a film and it could really touch you and change, um, your attitude or start to change your attitude, um, experience at the end than you did at the beginning.

That’s very cool. Like it’s almost, it’s sort of passive in a way. You’re taking it in, but you’re, I think your films are incredibly open hearted and you’re right. The beauty of them as part of what’s so stunning, the visual beauty. There’s one of your films has this scene where snow is falling and it’s almost like slow motion snow.

It’s when I see it, it’s like, I’ve never seen snow before. And it makes me cry every time I see it. And I’ve seen Johanna’s films several times because I’ve shown them so often and I love them. And, and every time I see that snow falling, it just touches me and cracks me open. And here I am listening to this conversation about end of life and death and dying and spirit and emotions and families and their experiences.

So you’re right. There’s some way that it really touches us. And yet in a safe way, like we, we let our guard down because we’re not in conversation exactly, but it impacts us. I love that you just said they were all in one room. And just to clarify, you don’t mean literally in one room, but like the film itself is the room in which they bounce off each other.

And it’s really your editing and your team’s editing that creates that back and forth of the ideas and the film, which I think is, is so rich. You know, it’s funny. I almost feel like if you’re listening and you’re like, why would I watch a film about people talking about death? You, you have to sort of check out one of these movies to see why it’s so rich, because it’s like eavesdropping on this conversation about these rich ideas about what is possible.

And I don’t think you have to. Believe it, you know, you don’t have to go into it thinking, Oh, I agree with all of this, but it’s more like food for thought. It’s just really enriching food for thought in ways that you might not have thought of before. 

Yes, that’s well said that’s and also they do share from their own experience.

So there are stories peppered in there really. It’s not all just intellectual stuff. This is really coming from, um, a well of wisdom from each of these people that is that is, um, only through time and experience could be forged. 

So, so meaningful. What are, what are some of the big takeaways for you out of this trilogy?

I mean, you’ve now gone from thinking it was one movie to realizing it’s a website of resources and three films. And what’s your takeaway now that that third film is in the can, as they say? 

Um, well, I’ll just share that, uh, you know, I, as I mentioned to you, um, Before we started the podcast, I just finished a, uh, an extended version of the third film, and it’s kind of like doing that was the completion of all the filmmaker work, you know, in the, in the edit suite, all those.

Many, many, many, many hours. 

I can’t imagine. It’s got to be like 100, 000 hours. Oh 

my God. Oh my God. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And when I got to the end, so then I just dropped it off at a post house where they’re making the digital cinema. Version that, that cinemas, you know, need a particular code in order to run their digital films.

And so, I wanted to look at it one more time to make sure it was okay before we went and had the, the DCP made. And I did, and I got to the end, and I cried. I cry and I know this material like I dream this material I could almost, you know, do it all by rote and tell you exactly what people said I’ve heard it and seen it so many times, and still at the end I cried, and I felt so grateful for all these people to have such trust in me, tell me their experiences and teach me.

You know, and many people that didn’t make it into the cuts, you know, this whole culmination. So it was really one of feeling tremendous gratitude and, um, and my own good fortune of being able to have, have done these films. So, you know, so there was that, like, it’s definitely, that was a big moment for me.

And I, and I feel a lot of conviction now about the, the educational use of these films, you know, because I want to change a culture. I want us to make death part of life, you know, because it is. And part of doing that is to say, Hey, you know, it’s not what you think it is. You know, and that, you know, we’ve all starting to hear more and more now about different end of life experiences.

You know, deathbed visitations, and Christopher Kerr has done a wonderful job, um, really bringing his work forward. He’s really done a great job, and the New York Times picked up on his work, and it kind of went viral, much to those reporters amazement. Um, but, so, you might hear about these end of life experiences, and say, that’s just crap.

You know, there’s not any dead relative sitting on my bed. And I say to people, it doesn’t matter what you think. And absolutely, each one of us needs to make decisions about these things, but we need to incorporate some of these experiences into our death care. Because for the person who’s dying, these visits and these other experiences that you can learn about in my film, um, are really important.

important to a peaceful death. They are helpful. They are comforting experiences. So, I feel like a big takeaway is to say, hey, you know, it’s really important for us to think about what we think about happens when we die. Does consciousness continue? You know, what’s up with deathbed experiences? What’s up with, uh, near death experiences?

Like, explore what consciousness might mean to you. But when it comes to the dying process, of your loved ones and friends, just validate, validate, validate, validate whatever their experience is because it brings them peace. And you know, this, this sacred time, this, this It’s really a time of, um, comforting, supporting, and being with, and not saying, Hey, Uncle Joe, you know, that’s maybe you’re hallucinating, that wasn’t, you know, so and so sitting on, like, that’s, that time is, Way past, you know, so let go of that.

So a big takeaway for me is how important it is for people to learn about experiences and to validate those experiences. And, and so to do that, we have to talk about it. So that’s, you know, another, you know, conviction. I have moving out of these films and into the world with them. And, um, And I, I think, too, just the idea that as a human being, we have capacities and one could say gifts that we are utterly unaware of in our very material driven world.

You know, we have lost touch with the power of nature and our own power to connect with others, uh, in a, in a deeper and meaningful way. And so I feel like that’s a big deal, too, because I think that, you know, when we, when we face death, it’s humbling. So what do we have? You know, our, our cashmere sweaters are not going to protect us.

You know, our, our, uh, I don’t know, big TV isn’t going to protect us. Uh, the, it, it’s like you stand naked in the face of death. And, but what we have. is this ability to really feel connected to the entire world if we allow ourselves to. And that is a gift that each human being has. So I feel that’s a fruitional part of what I take away that I really got from that.

That really opened my eyes in the course of this work. 

I love all that. I think that’s so incredible. And the, the films are intended to be, as you said, educational. And so they’re somewhat short and well, 50 minutes, right? Under an hour. 

Under an hour. Yeah. The last one’s 59. 

59. You’re just squeaked in an under an hour, but the director’s cut is more like 75 minutes.

And when and how will that director’s cut be available to see? 

Uh, that’s a very good question. Um, I think that we are doing some, we’ll be traveling around North America and doing some screenings. Um, the next, the very first screening is coming up in Toronto on May 2nd, um, at the Carleton Theatre. And we’re very excited about that.

So we’ll, we’ll be bringing it around. It’ll be available for festivals. It’ll be available for, uh, live screening events. So we have a list of places that we hope to come live to, uh, but anyone who would like to invite us to come, uh, please reach out and contact me. You can do it through our website. I get all the info at.

Um, and then the, the, the, the, the ones that are under 60 minutes each, um, they are being used in education as you do, Diane, which I’m very excited about, um, our screening Of the third film together coming up. Yeah, 

yeah. Coming up. So we’ve Johanna and I’ve shown film number one and film number two together where she joins in for a conversation.

We’ll be doing film number three on May 17th. That’s a Friday, 2024. If you’re listening after that. Sorry, you’ll have to find it another way, but we’re excited about that. So we’ll show the film and then have a conversation, which, um, Johanna is just an incredibly, you’re just a lovely available. You love to talk to people and you make those conversations so interesting, I think for people who participate.

So invite everyone to drop into that if they can. Well, I, I just, I think this third film and all the films are such an incredible What are they? They’re just an incredible kind of, I want to call them an opportunity to see this topic in a different way, in a real light of beauty and reflection. And. Well, how they might change culture over time, how they change individuals experience as families and as people, I, I think there’s a real potential here for a softening and a truth reckoning around what death could be.

Given where it’s been for, say, 50 years or 30 years, I think there’s an opportunity for something different. And when people see these films, I think it softens them and it opens them up to the possibility that there’s a lot more going on and there’s a lot more support. Potential. Yes, it’s sad. Yes, it’s difficult.

Yes, it’s a loss. And yes, there can be healing. Yes, there can be wholeness and so much love. And I think that comes through in these films, which is sort of hard to imagine, but Try one and believe me and see what you think. So, well, I thank you so much for joining me, Johanna. It’s just always a treat to talk and I hope we get to do a director’s cut in Boulder, Colorado sometime in the next year.

That would be amazing. 

Would love to do it. And we will try to make that happen for sure. And I should just mention one quick thing that the first and second films are available to rent or stream or purchase for educational use on our website. When you die. org. 

Perfect. Yep, yep. I’m glad you remember to say that.

So when you die.org is where you can find out all about this, and as always, you can find out more about the work I do at Best Life, best death.com. Thanks so much again for joining me. 

Oh, thank you Diane. It’s a pleasure.

Picture of Diane Hullet

Diane Hullet

End of Life Doula, Podcaster, and founder of Best Life Best Death.