Festival of dying: is your ‘death literacy’ lacking?

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Lying in a satin-lined coffin or wearing a bondage hood may help you face up to your inevitable demise

 

The Sydney Festival of Death and Dying aimed to spark conversations about mortality.

The Sydney Festival of Death and Dying aimed to spark conversations about mortality.

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Nothing could evoke more gut-wrenching melancholy than Syrian musician Adnan Baraké playing the oud in a dimly lit boat shed at a festival of death. At least, that’s what I’m thinking right up until the moment a foghorn bellows ominously from some distant ocean liner, swamping us entirely in a sombre aura of doom.

It’s the opening ceremony at the inaugural Sydney Festival of Death and Dying – and it’s only going to get more macabre.

Held this past weekend, the festival was billed as three days of workshops, lectures, and performances that “do justice to the full spectrum of what is at stake in mortality”. Presented by Dr Peter Banki, he has compiled a line-up of peers such as anti-death-phobia advocate Stephen Jenkinson, designer of posthumous fashion Pia Interlandi, and president of Dying with Dignity NSW, Dr Sarah Edelman.

Together, they aim to illuminate all angles of death and dying: living with grief, dying at home, the afterlife, visions, suicide, and voluntary assisted dying, among others.

Nobody close to me has died, and my “death literacy” is lacking – I have a lot to gain from a weekend like this. In curatorial advisor Victoria Spence’s terms, I’m here to “build muscles in relation to mortality”.

Death is and perhaps always will be taboo, but it’s something we need a lot of help preparing for. Before we become a parent, we have months to get ready: we read books, we go to classes, we shop, we see a counsellor. When someone dies though, it’s often unexpected – but there are ways we can make the process easier, and they usually begin with a conversation. Or in this case, a festival.

Victoria Spence is a civil celebrant, consultant and former thespian. She begins her session – Developing Your Mortality Muscle – by explaining her objectives: to help us be aware of, and understand, our physiological responses to loss.

Death may cause us to fight, flee, freeze or submit, she says, but one response is pretty much guaranteed: shock. We react to death by abruptly drawing in breath; and in the rituals that surround death, we metaphorically hold it in. But if we’re prepared, if we learn to breathe, we can be properly present.

“When somebody dies, you put the kettle on,” she says. “That’s how you be with your dead.”

Having physical proximity with the deceased – being privy to their new smells, witnessing physical changes – activates a physiological response, changing the way we view our dead and encouraging the grieving process.

The Sydney Festival of Death and Dying allowed participants to get up close and personal with the accoutrements of death.

The Sydney Festival of Death and Dying allowed participants to get up close and personal with the accoutrements of death.

Victoria says being physically intimate with death can be crucial: bathing your dead person, or clothing them. Another way to be intimate is through language. We sit in groups to exercise our vocabulary of condolence: “I’m sorry”, “You’ll get through this”, “You will heal in time” – my phrases seem to avoid the moment, while others engage with it: “How does her death make you feel?”

Next we’re given the chance to get up close and personal with the accoutrements of death. I slink into a satin-lined coffin, and as the lid is repositioned I imagine the sound of dirt raining down on me. This experience builds no bridge to death, the same way being wrapped in toilet paper for Halloween brings me no closer to the experience of mummification. But it does make me wonder about alternative burial rites.

In another session, Dr Sebastian Job creates a simulation where participants “face the worst” ahead of time. By inflating a balloon until it bursts we experience a symbolic death, he says, allowing us the opportunity to process death anxiety and life regret. He hopes this jolts us from social paralysis into affirmative action.

Have you ever thought about what song you want played at your deathbed? Peter Roberts is a music thanatologist; he plays music for people who are at the end of their life. In this session he discusses how music can help dying people to let go – and several have during his service.

Tempo tempers breathing, and tone and timbre can quell fear, he explains; his use of vowel sounds, not words, can offer uncomplicated companionship, and provide the dying an opportunity to abandon their pain-riddled bodies and follow with their mind, travelling peacefully with the harp’s melody.

 


 
Palliative care physician Dr Michael Barbato has devoted a significant part of his life to the exploration of dreams and visions at the end of life. He believes that we overlook the mystic elements of death and dying simply because they appear too “fringy”.

He quotes a study that found up to 50% of respondents believed their dying loved one was experiencing unusual visions. The study quoted was his own – the Palliative Medical Journal refused to publish it because, he says, it was too fringy. His talk is entertaining and peppered with emotive stories, but it lacks the scientific substance I require to get into the moment.

Dr Peter Banki, the festival director, believes proximity to death can make us feel alive. He says we often use words such as pain, fear and submission when describing death. One of his workshops, Thresholds and Lust, is an intersection of both his festivals – this Festival of Death and Dying, and his prior Festival of Really Good Sex. It is designed to playfully evoke death-related emotions from willing participants.

A bondage hood is placed on my head, suffocating my senses. My partner manipulates my head and body, she runs her hands over my arms and head (submission). I can’t help but wonder what everyone else around me is doing – are they watching (fear)? The heat bakes my gimp head like a potato jacket, while my body is uncomfortably contorted on the pungent floorboards (pain). I tap out.

I’m not yet ready to yield to the vagaries of dying, whether real or imagined, by the festival’s end – but I do notice I’ve begun cultivating a relationship with death that I’m thankful for. Perhaps more importantly, I’ve also observed friendships forming, information exchanged, and future plans being made – the festival of death has facilitated the birth of a community. We are all dying, after all.

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