To die for: Death Salon mortality conference - the event meant to help you go out with a bang

Fun day out for embalmers as event hits London

“This is fun for me,” enthuses Philip Martin, an embalmer and funeral service educator who flew from Melbourne to take part in the Death Salon, an event designed to face down the ultimate taboo. “We rarely get together to talk about death in the funeral industry.”

Amid the skulls and specimens preserved at Barts Pathology Museum in east London, 100 participants are satisfying their morbid curiosity at a three-day, sold-out seminar, which provides an opportunity to “discuss mortality and mourning in a relaxed setting.”

Papers presented at the conference included Lifting the Lid on Dying and Funerals, A History of the Fear of Premature Burial and, for lighter relief, Cinematic representations of the necrophilia/aesthetic corpse trope.

The subject matter may be a little gloomy but the atmosphere is anything but. Morticians, academics, funeral directors - clutching coffee mugs bearing the logo “keep calm and drive the hearse”- and the simply death-curious, excitedly debate the last knockings between sessions. Death Salon pin badges are sold for £5 next to copies of the Natural Death Handbook.

“My aim is to get the public interested in death and pathology,” said Carla Valentine, the Barts museum curator, who brought Death Salon to Britain after learning of a Los Angeles event last year. “I think it’s a subject for everybody. It’s a total sell-out so it’s a topic people are increasingly warming to.”

Ms Valentine, a qualified mortuary technician who sports a heart pendant emblazoned with the words "Morbid Blonde" on her website, hopes to challenge the sanitised discussions about death found in popular culture. She wants to “empower” people to organise their own funerals, which would help families avoid expenditure on high street funeral directors.

Introducing Friday’s programme, Ms Valentine, who preserves the museum’s specimens in her day job, points out the fire exits. “We hope you don’t die – but if you do, lots of people here will take good care of you.”

“I live, eat and breathe organ donation but that’s not the case for everyone else,” admits Kirsty McNally, a specialist NHS Organ Donation nurse, who delivers a talk on the myths surrounding life-saving transplants.

 

Asking a distraught relative to respect the wish of a loved one, on the point of their death, and to consent to a transplant is a hugely sensitive task, she says. People often wrongly believe the organs will be harvested before death. “The eyes are the most difficult to get,” she says. “People are emotionally attached to their eyes.”

Joanna Kirby, who works in accountancy marketing, said her friends were “shocked” that she was attending the Death Salon. “I’ve lost family members recently and suffered a lot of grief. Death is not something we talk about enough,” said Ms Kirby, who wore a silk scarf emblazoned with skulls. “It’s something I’d like to get more involved with.”

Annie Broadbent, author of We Need To Talk About Grief, spoke about her experiences following death of her mother when she was 25, a discussion which embalmer Mr Martin said he would find “invaluable” to draw upon when talking to bereaved relatives.

The cultural impact of death was explored in presentations on Victorian Anatomy Museums and the Necropolis Railway, which ran daily from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, carrying cadavers and mourners – one-way tickets were issued for coffins and a sign above a licensed bar at the journey’s end read “spirits served here”.

Nicholas Wheatley, a retired solicitor, who was once survived a car crash with a woman called Mrs Death, unveiled a model “ghost train”, featuring a grim reaper. “I am very keen to spread the word about death,” said Mr Wheatley, who believes his creation will make death a more accessible, fun topic for children.

The conference concludes on Saturday with a “post mortem” session, discussing dead body disposal technology and the “future of death”.

The participants, who paid £60 for a three-day ticket, felt they had benefited by staring death in the face. Holly Carter-Chappell, Collections Assistant at Florence Nightingale Museum, said: “I study the ethics of archaeology and legislation over the use of human remains. It’s been fascinating to meet academics in the field of death as well as funeral directors and carers. And also to speak to living people as the objects I come into contact with are very much dead.”

With death apparently going nowhere in a hurry, the conference is set to become an annual event.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?