Sydney’s inaugural Festival of Death and Dying unfurls this weekend, an event that shirks the sombre for the celebratory and inspiring – more yoga sessions and workshops than three-piece suits and carnations.
Behind it is a group of death experts who are reframing the way we approach the end of life and the large, but mostly hidden, industry around death.
I spoke with the festival’s co-curator, Victoria Spence, about her unusually positive and creative stance on mortality – and how, with a little preparation, the embrace of death can add more to life.
And, with a majority of tickets for the event sold to women and with many of the speakers women, what is it about death that appeals to the feminine?
- As with birth, looking after the dying and the dead has historically been women’s work. Women have nursed the dying, taken on relational roles and supported grieving communities. “You have to tune in emotionally, [being female] lends itself very well to being able to travel with people on this often chaotic and shocking and intense journey of the dying and death and the aftercare process,” says Spence, who is a celebrant, counsellor and holistic death care provider. Men traditionally occupied the background roles – undertakers, coffin-makers, pallbearers. That division of labour still determines the mainstream funeral industry today, a sector that has become business-driven and corporate.
- We’re dying more consciously. That may sound like an oxymoron, but it means that we are approaching death with more awareness and power than ever before. People are questioning invisible processes and want to know the full picture. “The whole landscape is shifting dramatically and it’s very exciting. We have to live really well. I know it seems a long bow to say that the more we pay attention to how we look after our dying and dead, the more it has an impact on our empowerment and engagement as people, but I think it does,” says Spence.
- We’re also more death literate than we once were. To Spence, death is a huge part of life and the more you know about it, the better off you are. “I’ve been doing this work for 15 years and when I first started reinvigorating secular funerals and I told people what I did, truly, 9.5 out of 10 people would walk away. Now, 9.5 of those 10 initiate deep and meaningful conversations with me.”
- We are seeing a return to older, more community-driven ownership of death. Rather than opting for a traditional, formal funeral parlour, for example, people are seeking alternatives that are more in touch with their lived lives – parties in a favourite park or bodies being prepared for burial by families, for example.
- Women are reclaiming home deaths. Again, like birth, more people are choosing to die at home, in an environment of their making. It’s part of a shift that comes from a deepening of women’s roles in the industry and shaping the social and cultural agenda around funerals.
- It’s little known that according to NSW law, a body may be kept at home for five days after death if a person dies at home. It’s also perfectly legal to take possession of a body and take it home from a hospital or nursing home. It might sound a little gruesome, but understanding such rights gives us all more ownership of our deaths and the way we want to be treated after we die. Which is not such a bad thing.
- Scared of dying? You’re not alone. “If you have never had a conversation about death and dying and you don’t even have a will and the word death terrifies you, how might this festival be an introduction to you?” asks Spence. “We’ve tried to make it as convivial and real and understanding as possible and people will bring their own experience with them … Maybe you’re scared of death and you don’t know how to talk about it, you can come and do a yoga class and learn the corpse pose …”
- Death can be rewarding. It takes a village to look after our dying and dead, says Spence. “Death is enormously mobilising and allows people to bring out the best of themselves.”
- There are deaths we are going to survive and then there’s our own. “We can’t think about our own death without going ‘Woooooah!’ and that’s just a part of our survival as a species,” says Spence. But, she says, it’s really good to understand that very nearly everybody will feel the death of someone that we love before our own and that is part of our preparation for life’s end.
- Death is physiological. At the risk of stating the obvious, this pertains to those around the dying. “The impact of the news of a death hits us physically and psychologically and we feel that like a body blow,” says Spence. Breathe out, keep breathing, everything in your body will speed up but that doesn’t mean you have to go quickly. Take time. Take everything slowly.
- What we really are afraid of how we die and the process of dying. But, really, the focus should be on living, says Spence. Much around death and its onset – in the case of a terminal illness, for example – is coloured by shock. But, finally, the focus is on needing to live, letting the treatment come and keeping on living.