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No death please, we're British

As a new festival at the Southbank explores the way cultures around the globe deal with our final exit, Arifa Akbar asks whether it is time for us to lose the morbidity left by the Victorians and reconsider the way we say goodbye
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More unpredictable than love, more taboo than sex, it is a fundamental feature of life that unites us all: death.

Yet while a host of cultures make a great show of celebrating it, from weeping ceremonies to elaborate funeral processions and annual festivals, the British appear to avoid any loud public displays around ‘the end’.

Why can’t we make more of a song and dance about it? The Southbank Centre has organised a festival around death to do just that. The three day event from 27 January will see a host of death professionals– funeral directors, undertakers, medical experts, scientists – give their accounts of death, while artists, philosophers and writers will explore the issues behind it, from assisted death to the fate of the bodies of such figures as Jesus Christ and Muammar Gaddafi .

There will be a talk about the uncanny number of rock star who have died at 27, a BBC concert featuring works produced by Mahler, Tavener and Barber, in their twilight years, a funeral planning event called ‘Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Death But Were Too Afraid to Ask’ and a moment of silence in which to contemplate our fragile existence and certain mortality.

Jude Kelly, artistic director of the Southbank Centre, said the festival could be an uplifting experience, if we put aside our cultural reticence around the subject. “In a way that a fitting memorial can be revelatory, or the presence of humour in a well-observed wake can lighten the load, we hope that our new festival can begin to allow some light onto a subject too often consigned to the shadows.”

There is every reason to think that other, far-flung cultures do death better than us. Sarah Murray, author of Making an Exit, began to research funerals around the world shortly after her father died. She found that while we were still struggling with the legacy of Victorian repression, others marked deaths by throwing the biggest party of their lives. She attended a royal cremation in Bali that surprised her not only for its decorative effigies of dragons, demons and bulls, but also its exuberance. “It was really quite amazing but ordinary people got quite amazing ceremonies there too. You are not supposed to be sad as that is said to impede the journey of the soul to heaven”, she said.

She attended a weeping festival in Iran, the day of the dead celebrations in Mexico, and bought her own customised coffin the shape of the Empire State Building in Ghana. In each instance, she found that the cultural attitude to death was more open, even in America, where there is an established culture for embalming bodies and open coffins.

“In all of the places I went to, I saw how death could be a catalyst for the most astonishing creativity. We could argue that have been the most creative around death – the building of the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids,” she said.

Yet she has noticed a new generation in Britons to be much more upfront, and original, about death, seeking their own customised coffins, and funeral ceremonies. Similarly, Dr John Troyer, deputy director of the Centre for Death and Society, said there  had been a marked rise in memorial tattooing in recent times, and he thinks that the idea that the British are repressed about death is a myth.

Sue Barksy-Reid, a psychotherapist who has helped to run a ‘death café’ set up by John Underwood, said significant numbers of young people had come along to discuss the end over a cup of tea and slice of home-made cake. “We have the discussions for two hours and in the last half hour, we talk about life more than death, but people are reluctant to stop talking about death. It’s been mostly young people coming along, the average age is about 35.

“It’s the enthusiasm that is the most surprising. People really engage with it, and they go away happy, which seems counter-intuitive, but it’s not.”

Sue Gill, co-author of Dead Good Guides, who also runs workshops on funeral planning with John Fox, said even while death is our greatest taboo – more so than sex – there is a growing urge to plan for it.