Good grief: death finally got its own festival in the UK last weekend. Since we hate to miss out on under-the-radar activities in London, we sent a spy. Bon viveur Bruce Traynor’s verdict was that Death: Festival for the Living at London’s Southbank Centre was definitely worth writing home about…
London Southbank’s artistic director, Jude Kelly, put it well in the programme for the inaugural Death Festival: ‘It is not about morbidity, sentimentality or sensationalism. It is full of delight and humour. It’s about hearing powerful stories and interesting facts from people who have had to sort out practically and emotionally how to face up to the greatest and most challenging of all certainties. Come and be part of it – we’re all in this together.’
She was dead right. The mood was almost euphoric; there was a buzz. Was this the dawn of a new era of openness? We felt like pioneers. Indeed, this was probably the first event like this in Western history, according to Rosie Inman-Cook at the Natural Death Centre stand, who’d been on BBC breakfast telly saying how funerals can and should be so much better (and cheaper) than what we put up with. Their website immediately got 10,000 hits.
Mexico‘s Day of the Dead celebrations inspired the great logo for the Death Festival, and it was subtitled the Festival for the Living. It seems there’s a groundswell to break free from the sombre Victorian attitudes that we’re still lumbered with. The festival sold out quickly. Another sign of the times is British company Crazy Coffins, who make caskets as uplifting, personalised and elaborate as the famous Ghanaian coffins. Exhibitions of both were delighting the crowds at the weekend.
There was standing room only for musician and writer Paul Morley when he read from his essay on the phenomenon of rock stars dying young, particularly at 27, how this immortalises them, and how it’s part of the fabric of rock n roll. Smiley and engaging, Sam Turner from the charity Dying Matters presented a moving film of people who have lost loved ones or who are themselves facing death, explaining why talking about it is so important. Documentary photographer Murray Ballard showed his shots of the people, places and equipment used in cryonics – the practice of preserving a dead human or animal through freezing in the hope of healing and revival in the future. There was a fair amount of giggling, and yet, well, you never know…
The image from the festival that will always stick in my mind was back at the Natural Death Centre stand: there on the floor were half a dozen completely absorbed children huddled around a coffin, happily drawing all over it – their serene and contemplative parents looking on. There was a lovely caring atmosphere there. And it stopped that coffin being scary – perfectly symbolic for the whole weekend.
Words: Bruce Traynor. For advice or guidance on family-led funerals and natural burial grounds, contact the very friendly team at the Natural Death Centre.