My Southbank Deathfest

Charles 12 Comments

Posted by Vale

Some personal reflections on the Southbank Deathfest this weekend:

Imagine a wire and steel footbridge over the Thames: brown water lapping, St Paul’s, pale in the wintry light, downstream. Drop down to buildings, a collection of concrete and glass halls that were modern once but which, in the way of those brave 50s buildings, now feel curiously dated.

Inside, people. Lots of them. It’s like an arty concourse in a railway station. Not everyone has come for the Deathfest – though hundreds of them have – but it seems that the lobbies of the Royal Festival Hall are a gathering place for Londoners anyway. The mill of people – talking, drinking coffee, mooching about, characterises the whole of the Deathfest. The day is made up of different events – talks, Death Cafe’s, discussions, stalls, happenings. Each of them has a charge of energy – and, depending on the venue and what’s going on, this mill of people round about sometimes makes them seem open and dynamic and, sometimes, dissipates them so that it is impossible to concentrate.
Actually there was a general sense of mild chaos everywhere. 

Decorative coffins from Ghana

Through the door and, whoop! there are old friends and GFG regulars – Sweetpea, Belinda Forbes, Charles (whose phone rings constantly so that he is no sooner there than darting off again) and Gloria Mundi.There seemed to be friends of the GFG everywhere. Our religious correspondent Richard Rawlinson, Ru Callender, Fran Hall and Rosie Inman-Cooke at a very lively NDC stand, Tony Piper and then GFG heroes like Simon Smith from Green Fuse, Shaun Powell from the Quaker initiative in the East End, helping poorer families to a good funeral. James Showers, Kathryn Edwards too. Who have I missed out? Who did I miss?

If I am honest there was a lot that was interesting, some that was moving and a little that I thought was not really for me as a practicing Celebrant. But it wasn’t aimed at the likes of us and it was hugely exciting that so many there had come for themselves, to find out and start their own explorations. At the sessions I took part in – where the question was asked – I think 80%-90% were ‘ordinary’ people.

I enjoyed an NDC hosted talk about the need to prepare for death. It made me realise that, as a celebrant, almost all of our time is spent with families after the event. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to meet people earlier? I came away with a resolution to start to make a video recording as part of my own end of life preparations. Just, you know, to make sure a few good things get said. Met an inspiring spiritual midwife too!

After, off to the Beyond Goodbye session that began with Charles’ talk and closed with the film and questions about Josh’s extraordinary funeral. Well, extraordinary because of the film and the standard and quality of what was done, but, I wanted to call out, there are lots of ‘extraordinary’ funerals now. Any family can – should – have one. But that hardly needs saying here. Josh’s mum and brother though came across as pure gold. It really is worth watching it – find the GFGs original posting here. The website for Josh and for Beyond Goodbye is here.

I hung on to my seat (this was in the smaller Queen Elizabeth Hall) because after Josh came John Snow and the assisted dying discussion and lot’s of people wanted to see that.

At the end of a lively discussion I’m with Helena Kennedy on this: let’s, for goodness sake, have a proper commission about end of life issues. We’re mired in piffling debates in the Leveson enquiry and the doubtful (but surely unsurprising) morals of newspapers when there is an issue here that is both urgent and important and where popular feeling is pulling ahead of the current legal position. Society as a whole would benefit from open, reasoned, public enquiry and debate. I feel a GFG campaign coming on…

There were lots of things in the discussion that did make me think – especially the realisation that assisted dying has to be considered in the whole context of how we, as a society, treat vulnerable people. The whole debate would change – wouldn’t it? – if we could be confident that we treated the elderly and disabled generously, with respect and true consideration?

So much that I didn’t see. Paul Gambaccini’s session on Friday about Desert Island Death Discs, the poetry, Paul Morley and Sandi Toksvig – but I still came away with a sense that, maybe, in places like the pages of this blog, in the work of pioneers like the NDC and the Quaker Social Action project, and most of all in the energy and interest of the people who came and took part, we really might be able to bring death our lives. One thing is certain – we need more festivals like this one.


  1. Charles

    An old pal of mine who also came along, and joined in some chat, said the next day how pleased he was that I was amongst a crowd of like-minded people, because two or three years ago it seemed as though I was trying to change the world all on my own, and didn’t seem very happy about that.

    Yes, Vale’s right, it is under way. Some want it quicker, some want it faster, some want it this way, some want it that way – but all want more meaning in our funerals, and a richer awareness of our own mortality to help us live fuller and better lives before then.

    And yes, my pal is right – I’m much happier now I’m touch with so many remarkable people, including those who couldn’t get to the Fest. And being in touch is thanks to – the Good Funeral Guide. Which is absolutely the business and should have had a session all to itself. As any fule kno. ’nuff said. Thanks Charles.

  2. Charles

    “… if we could be confident that we treated the elderly and disabled generously, with respect and true consideration?”

    Step back; isn’t that absolutely unbelievable? We’ve evolved ourselves to the point where a debate on humane treatment is fundamentally obstructed because of a need to introduce a caveat – that we must insure ourselves against taking advantage of people, because we can’t trust ourselves not to murder them.

  3. Charles

    True enough Jonathon. A point was made in the debate that in Oregon, where there are laws in place, the cost of assistance to die is free, but but medical and social care is not. Now let’s talk about easy options for families.

  4. Charles

    Ah, but there is much agreement that the Oregon law is working well and people are not being done in to save money. Numbers are steady, not rising. A great many people find comfort in having a lethal substance to hand, but never use it and die naturally. I can’t find more recent stats, but 2009 is typical:

    There were 59 people in 2009 who brought their lives to an end with physician-assisted dying under the Oregon Death With Dignity Act, according to a report just issued by the state’s department of health. The previous year the figure was 60 hastened deaths.
    During 2009, 95 prescriptions for lethal medications were written under the provisions of the law compared to 88 in the previous year.
    Of these, 53 patients took the medications, 30 died of their underlying illness, and twelve were alive at the end of 2009. In addition, six patients with earlier prescriptions died from taking the medications, resulting in a total of 59 such deaths during last year.

  5. Charles

    As a family we got a lot out of the Death Fest and though we were nervous ( Josh,s funeral was exactly this time last year) about being on a panel called Everything You Wanted to Know about Funerals……….(what do we know!) …..we found it really stimulating and rewarding to discuss the thinking behind the funeral that we organised for our son and brother……..The making of the film has been a huge and therapeutic part of our grieving process and it was heartwarming that people felt that somehow Beyond Goodbye was uplifting and positive.
    I also managed to catch an amazing show by Chris Larner called An Instinct for Kindness… about taking his chronically ill ex wife to Dignitas clinic in Switzerland ….deeply moving.

  6. Charles

    Jane, small point: you didn’t seem at all nervous, you both seemed quite remarkably thoughtful and calm. Solid gold, as Richard says above. Big point: it was profoundly moving and very helpful. So – thank you.

  7. Charles

    Jane: nice to encounter you here! Many thanks for being willing to ‘go public’ on such a poignant day. I wish there could have been a whole session devoted to your family’s film about Josh.

    One of the things that makes your family unusual is that you have a film-making/photographic sensibility embedded in your micro-culture; this is what deepens the story of your devising a fabulous and participative funeral for Josh. Frequently, such a well-developed occasion is experienced only by those present, whereas the readily-sharable mode you are using gives access to so many more. Perhaps you and your family will be willing and able to elaborate that specific dimension at some future time.

    In the meanwhile, I hope you are taking some rest after an intense anniversary experience.

  8. Charles

    Fascinating reading all these comments. Ru Callender at the NDC passed on details of this blog to me. I was there with my wife Dorothy Moore Brooks who was a speaker on ‘Where do they go to’ – Children’s repsonses to death. She is a chaplain at Great Ormond Street Hospital: I am a Church of England vicar, so we have a particular interest from a particular angle. But the need people have for good ritual at the time of death is vital -surely something that all practioners should be working together on to ensure.
    I missed a lot of the rest of what was going on, looking after my children, so sorry to miss many of the other debates – but really heartened to see how many people came and engaged with a subject that we are supposed to find taboo as a society.

  9. Charles

    Thanks Katherine….. and Gloria …….and Vale ,
    What you say does sum up our ambivalence……going public is terrifying and we would be very interested to discuss this subject further as we have given it an immense amount of thought. One of the deciding factors for me was the isolation of bereavement……..there seemed to be a ‘no go’ force field around us and many people had no idea how to be around us………so our decision was either live with it or square up to it……… As a family we have documented all the major events in our life …….it,s how we have always tried to make sense of things…….however making any sense out of Josh,s death still defeats us…….except that our film seems to have hit a spot that others have found helpful……..and as a creative process it has also helps us to internalize the reality of our beautiful sons untimely death…..Most importantly many people who avoided us or couldnt talk abut Josh have taken our lead and he is now once again part of our shared conversations which can only be a good thing……

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