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‘Last Words’ Project Turns Letters Into Song

Crystal Meneses wears many hats. She’s a death doula, a chaplain for a local hospice organization, a music therapist, a death cafe facilitator, a grief counselor, a volunteer for several charities, and a transport worker for a mortuary.

Crystal Meneses wears many hats. She’s a death doula, a chaplain for a local hospice organization, a music therapist, a death cafe facilitator, a grief counselor, a volunteer for several charities, and a transport worker for a mortuary.

But the Oregon native is also an artist and musician and the founder of Activate Art, a nonprofit working to bridge the urban-rural divide.

So perhaps it is not surprising that surrounded by death (she lost seven people close to her in 2014) and inspired by the power of art, she created the Last Words project.

The project began with four “altars” she placed near the Oregon Coast, set up to collect letters about loved ones who had died from the public.

There, she gathered about 75 letters from anonymous submissions to create songs she later performed with a 10-piece band at four Portland-area cemeteries.

Some letters were simple. “I miss you, Dad. Where are you?” read one. A child wrote, “Mom thinks I’m over you, but I’m not.”

Meneses was excited to bring live music to Oregon cemeteries, she believes, for the very first time. Though it was a custom 100 years ago for families to visit and take picnics at the cemetery, clean the tombstones, and hang out in the space, this practice has faded away. But part of her project's goal is to remember and value these spaces.

Her work in various roles within the death industry has shown her the value of opening conversations about death. And in her advocacy work, she’s become concerned about the isolation that some, especially those in poverty and without shelter, suffer. Her work has brought her to prisons and hotel rooms where not everyone gets to have what the privileged consider a “good death.”

Meneses’ goal was to raise money by recording the concerts and creating and then selling live albums, using the proceeds to fund Oregon’s first death doula care space to be used to care for houseless veterans in partnership with Do Good Multnomah and Embrace Death Doula Care.

musical performance

Beyond the fundraising, she hopes to open conversations about death and build a community to take the fear out of the conversation.

For her, talking and thinking about death has been a “gift.” She says awareness of death can bring about “radical change” in life as it did for her. Her work as a therapist and an artist has helped her see the value in opening the door to the pain of grief and loss.

“Music and art make places of pain accessible,” she says, explaining that people can often hear music about death and grief, even if they can’t talk about it.

And though there is grief, there’s also love, as her lyrics convey in her song “Only Love.”

“I’m in the wind, I’m in the sky, I’m by your side when you cry. I’m in your eyes, I’m in your smile, I’m guiding you forever child.” 

To learn more about keeping a positive outlook even after death, take a look at The Epic Impact of Gratitude, Even When Facing Life's Final Chapter.