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Death: A Festival for the Living

Posted Jan 27 2012 12:14pm
A good reason to be sorry one doesn't live in London: this weekend's Death Festival , held at Southbank Centre on Belvedere Road, at which, through an assemblage of music, workshops, literature, installations, and talks "with everyone from philosophers to funeral workers," visitors will be given an unusual opportunity to explore death, this "unknowable certainty."

I learned of the event thanks to the happy impulse of a woman I have never met and with whom I have exchanged barely an email: the publicity manager at the publishing house that will issue the U.K. edition of The Grief of Others. I find myself this morning thinking about her, this felicitous stranger, with gratitude and surprise. I find it somewhat extraordinary that she would send me the link, apropos of nothing, without knowing me. I don't mean to overstate the riskiness of her action; my book does have "grief" in the title, after all. But I am so used to the notion that speaking of death willingly, wonderingly, and at any time other than strictly necessary, is thought by most people to be something very like bad manners. This was evinced all too clearly in conversations about the cover design for the American edition of Grief, in which playing against the heaviness of the subject noun was voiced as a paramount concern if the book was ever to make it off display tables and into anyone's palms, let alone all the way the cash register. (Thus the first cover, which featured lots of pink and yellow and a dress with a sash and a gay blue sky.)

The notion is evinced, too, in the slight furrowings of brow that occur whenever I mention how often I think of death (daily), and how without despair or even glumness these musings are, but rather with something more like penchant, humility and appetite. Not appetite to die, but appetite for wandering along the complex and multifarious passageways of thought and association the subject holds. The subject in our culture is rather like a grand old granite house full of forking stairways and hidden rooms and winding corridors and secret panels, with gardens and fountains and overgrown hedgemazes and neglected orchards out back - a generous, ancient estate that might beg exploration if only it hadn't been boarded up, a heavy chain padlocked across its gate, so that people, having grown used to thinking of the place as morose and vaguely sinister, not only give it wide berth but avert their eyes whenever it appears on the horizon, and discipline even their thoughts to stay away.

How I wish I could attend the festival in London. I would like to go to the puppet show , and to see Chris Larner perform "An Instinct for Kindness," and to pencil in a circle on Birthday , Sam Winston's pop up registry commemorating "the quarter of a million lives that are born and die in the space of 12 hours around the world," and to watch the masked and costumed children dance in "From Blue to Joy," a parade and party inspired by New Orleans funerals and Mexican Day of the Dead rituals.

Instead I will imagine a festival in my head, imagine the revelers sawing through the rusted chain on the gate of that great, foreboding stone house, imagine them throwing open the shutters and sashes, admitting breezes to swoop through the rooms, admitting also sunlight and leaves and blown rain and pollen and soot and the sounds of their own voices and footsteps as they venture along, trying out different passageways and doors.
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