In the foyer of the Southbank Centre, a small group of toddlers were gathered around a cardboard coffin, decorating it with glitter and flowers. This was 'Death: a festival for the living.' Nicole Fordham Hodges speaks the unspeakable.
I passed the coffin several times. It was surrounded by children intent on creation. The sight touched me more than the adjacent display of bespoke coffins from Ghana and the UK: a corkscrew for a wine lover, a ballet shoe for a dancer. Someone wanted to be buried in the foetal position, her coffin a perfect egg.
“Death hath ten thousand several doors, for men to take their exits,” wrote John Webster in 'The Duchess of Malfi.' This festival offered a bewildering number of doors on death: intellectual, practical, artistic, psychotherapeutic. Tickets had sold out. It was standing room only at Death Bites, a series of fascinating short talks on all things death-related: from writing obituaries, to the meaning of death in video games.
Paul Gambaccini presented our top ten choices of songs for funerals in 'Desert Island Death Discs.' 'My Way', 'Angels', 'Candle in the Wind,' they referenced celebrity, glory, lost love: lost ego not lost lives. Gambaccini's own choices looked death in the eye. They included Antony and The Johnson's chilling 'Hope There's Someone': “Oh, I'm scared of the middle place, between light and nowhere”, and the pared down loveliness of Beth Nielsen Chapman's 'Sand and Water': “All alone I didn't like the feeling/ All alone I sat and cried.”
In a quieter gathering, Christopher Reid read from 'A Scattering', his Costa award winning poetry collection about the death of his wife, Lucinda. These were tender, dignified, undramatic poems. In one poem Reid describes his wife's shaved head: “the curve of her head in the cup of my hand.”
After reading his poem about the moment of Lucinda's death: “I never heard the the precise cadence into silence”, Reid said quietly, "that's the best I could do.”
Meghan O'Rouke read from 'The Long Goodbye,' her memoir about the death of her mother: “Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life.”
She spoke with penetrating urgency of the emotional territory of loss, and of trying to bridge the divide between the bereaved and unbereaved. Her unbereaved friends had not seemed to grasp that this was an irretrievable loss “of a human soul”. "Yes," she said, what other word could she use but 'soul'.
A young woman spoke of how the memoir was helping her after her own mother's death. She did not, she said, want the book to end. When my mother dies, I will buy this book, I thought, unexpectedly. I was amongst several women lingering in silence, at the end of the reading, looking out at the London Eye.
This was an inspired, brave, taboo-breaking festival. It was full of emotional and practical help for the bereaved – and the not yet bereaved. Many of the visitors might - like me? - have been playing games with death. But don't adults learn by playing, as well as children?