When the North Wind blows, with him isn’t Mary Poppins. Instead, it’s the Cold Chill that rattles our bones and chatters our teeth. The kind of cold that turns people into human dumplings, wrapped in sweaters, scarves and mittens.
What better way then to warm the cockles of one’s heart than going to a winter festival. I am of course referring to last weekend’s Death Festival held at the ever creative and vibrant Southbank Centre along the River Thames in London.
Believe me, it was no ordinary festival.
A Festival for the Living
“What a strange idea!” I hear you gasp and I would agree. After all, Death is one of the biggest taboos in this country, according to the Death experts. In my case, Curiosity got the better of Fear. When I eventually subdued my 3Ms of “morbid, moody and morose” and instead envision “magnify, materialise and make-believe”, I managed to keep an open mind for long enough to 1) buy a ticket and 2) go to a few gigs.
Upon arrival, I’m greeted by an exhibition called “Boxed”, a display of beautifully crafted coffins that would make the Dead proud. That’s not all. There’s a whole host of activities such as “Coffin Morning” (a pun on coffee morning), “Death Cafe-Salon” where we are invited to eat a piece of cake while discussing all things Death-related, “Desert Island Discs” where people share the music they would like played on that special day. And O! so much more.
Festival Director, Jude Kelly, and associate artist, Lemn Sissay, describe the festival as, “the only event that truly links anyone and everyone who will ever visit Southbank Centre”. A classic example of “never have truer words been spoken”.
Whose life is it anyway?
As I sit through talks and discuss Death with strangers, the icicles in my head placed there by the Cold Chill begin to melt.
(What follows are quotes I collected from the day.)
Be Prepared – A good funeral doesn’t give a damn what people think about it. If you want a good funeral, you have to plan backwards, beginning with where you want to be when you’re gone.
Finding Solace in the Secular – What does Contemporary Death mean and how do we want to take control of the decisions of a secular funeral?
Enduring Death – Longevity of life makes death harder to think about; what used to take days now takes weeks or months. You will experience loss, fear, grief, anxiety or exasperation. Take turns supporting one another.
Fear Less – Grief is a personal experience. Funerals amplify your preferred natural state. A good life leads to a good death. Perhaps if we didn’t think that we would go to different places, one better than the other, we would be less afraid?
Circle of Life – Funerals are for the living. You have to experience Death to experience Life. To talk of death is to be most alive. Life, Love and Death is a cycle of rejuvenation.
Time for Celebration – Death leads to new discoveries. It’s possible to turn a funeral into a celebratory event. Such events are a catalyst for life. Create a celebration, one that creates a space for all feelings.
One of the most moving talks I heard was about the funeral organised by Jimmy Edmonds and Jane Harris. They have become known as the people who made a video of their son’s funeral in order to come to terms with his sudden death and celebrate his life. Jane talked about many things, including how she got to know Josh better during and after the funeral through hearing the stories told by his friends. All this because the family chose to share their son’s death with his friends.
Hanging on for Dear Life
As I leave the festival, I recall a curious fact I learned not so long ago. Death is the favourite topic among Buddhists. And the warmth I feel in my heart is exactly as Jimmy and Jane described in their experiences of coming to terms with their son’s death. Instead of “Goodbye”, we might try “See you later, alligator” or even “In a while, crocodile” and, in saying so, come to know our loved ones better forevermore.