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Death festival intrigues the living

‘Work at Disney World’, ‘write an amazing song’, ‘make 1000 people smile’, ‘win the Tour de France’, ‘scuba dive on a coral reef’, ‘bake the perfect soufflé’.

These were just a few of the hundreds – maybe even thousands – of contributions to a giant chalkboard headed ‘Before I die I want to...’ that was installed at the Southbank Centre’s recent Death: Festival for the living.

The packed entries were a vivid demonstration of the general public’s interest in the event (although perhaps we should gloss over the one that said ‘get rid of my wife’).

Comedienne Sandi Toksvig, newsreader Jon Snow, poet Lemn Sissay were among the better known names involved but there were thousands of visitors across the weekend of the festival. The venue doesn’t track exact numbers but all 500 of the day passes for Saturday’s events were sold out and that didn’t include the people who wandered in for a closer look at the unusual coffins from Ghana’s Paa Joe and Crazy Coffins.

The display featured, among others, designs in the shape of a skip, a ballet shoe and a cocoa bean. There were a few ‘coffin injuries’ apparently – such as broken strings on the guitar model – from over-enthusiastic responses, but in the main, the coffins were treated well, arousing a combination of awe, amusement and reverence.

The South Bank Centre's artistic director, Jude Kelly, who opened the event, said the idea behind it was that defining our death by the way we live should give us comfort.
"I want people to go away and feel more secure about talking to a friend or a neighbour about what's happened to them, or open up their own feelings and reveal what's going on, and talk to children," she said. “Somehow we're always sort of trying to close the lid on the box. Let's not.”

The festival had something to interest everyone. Individual events and happenings spanned the heart-wrenching – Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir describing the loneliness of loss of her mother in The Long Goodbye, and Christopher Reid’s poetry A Scattering, written after his wife’s premature death – and the more lighthearted – for example a ‘Desert island death discs’ session presided over by radio presenter Paul Gambaccini.  

The tickets for An Instinct For Kindness, Chris Larner’s candid performance exploring some of the implications of assisted dying, and Goodbye Mr Muffin, a production featuring puppetry, animation and music that focused on the last days of a guinea pig’s life, also sold out.

There were musical performances from blues to classical, help with bereavement support for both adults and children and advice on natural burial and green funerals. Queues for The Poetry Takeaway’s composed-to-order poems stretched across the centre’s foyer, where Tim, Tom and Dan took about 15 minutes to produce each handwritten work.

A discussion chaired by Nigerian journalist Noo Saro-Wiwa, and featuring travel writer Sarah Murray and historian Dr Gus Caseley-Hayford, touched on rituals, ceremonies and landscapes from all over the world, from the magnificent to the macabre.
Robert O Frimpong-Manso, chairman of the Ghana Welfare Association, gave an insight into his country’s funeral customs, including coffins created to reflect lives, wakes lasting several days, debt-inducing funeral catering costs and gatecrashers who attend funerals based on the likelihood of a good spread.

The series of 15-minute ‘Death Bites’ talks covered a wide spectrum of death-related topics, including a treatise on the surprising number of rockstars who have passed away at the age of 27, the economics of funerals, memorial tattooing and why mindfulness of death improves the quality of life.

These also included a whistlestop tour ‘Down Among the Dead Men’ of London’s cemeteries from Brian Parsons, an insight into the issues of what happens to personal digital data – Facebook accounts, blogs, YouTube video clips etc – after death and a potted guide to writing an obituary.

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