“You can’t call it that!” a friend said to me in the early days of planning my festival of Living and Dying in Oxford on Autumn 2012. But I persisted (slightly nervously at first) and a huge number of people commented on how approachable the name made it all feel.

I think it takes a bit of chutzpah to run these kinds of things but it is so worth it. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, reflecting people’s relief at finding a place where they could talk about the subject, not feel so isolated with their particular concerns, where death could become part of their lives not something fearful and hidden away.   “I have lived in Oxford for 20 years and this has been the best two weeks of my life” said one festivalgoer.

ktb1I am a celebrant and I run a green burial ground on the Oxfordshire/Wiltshire border. I am passionate about working with people so they understand all the choices they have about how they go about arranging funerals and burials. It rapidly became clear to me that I needed to reach people before they come to me at the burial ground when a death has already occurred. They are then in a state of shock and grief and it feels hard to take the time to think about things slowly. When the person who has died has left no clue about their wishes it can feel very confusing. This can really increase the amount of pain experienced especially when different family members do not agree what their mum might have wanted or when they plan it all as they think best and then find an outline of wishes they did not know existed which suggests something quite different from what they arranged.

So a Festival of Living and Dying to encourage people to broach the subject.

Our festival used a wide range of different approaches and venues to catch lots of different people.     I have a background in the theatre and community arts and I know the effectiveness of the arts in helping us come to term with difficult experiences and feelings and in allowing us to see the world from a different angle.

ktb3Experiencing and imagining other ways of doing things can enable us to begin to live them for ourselves.   So the arts were a crucial part of what we did but by no means the only approach. We worked through the primary and secondary schools, Blackwells bookshop, the Pitts Rivers museum, the Oxford Union, an independent cinema, a meditation centre, the Pegasus Theatre and the Old Fire Station gallery and performance space.

We used Oxford Quaker Meeting House for a wide variety of events and held a free open air fair in a busy shopping thoroughfare in the city centre. We facilitated or supported sessions with Sobell Hospice and Helen & Douglas House for young people and worked with the local homeless community. We aimed to catch people where they usually went, to talk to them through their particular passions and interests, provide practical information, inspiration through visual arts, music and performance and enable them to take part in a wide range of workshops. We ran 38 events over two weeks and involved over 1800 people. To see more about what we did last time visit www.kickingthebucket.co.uk

ktb4I think the way we approach our deaths often reflects how we live our lives. The invitation to really face our own mortality can lead to us asking some pretty fundamental and honest questions about what really matters to us and that isn’t always comfortable of course.   I know of some people with life shortening illnesses who say that they never lived life so vividly until they began to grapple with the reality of their own death. For others I know it can feel paralysing and impossibly hard to come to terms with in a myriad of ways and none of us know how we would react until we actually face it. But we can all get some benefit from facing our own mortality and realising we share this with everyone we know.

The work done by an Australian nurse, with people nearing end of life showed that people reported their priorities rested with their relationships, with living the life they really wanted to live not just responding to the pressure from family or society to live a certain way.   Nobody said they wished they had worked harder! http://www.inspirationandchai.com/Regrets-of-the-Dying.html

ktb5Time and again people talk to me about feeling lighter after approaching the subject not gloomier and you would be surprised how much laughter as well as tears there can be in a room where death is being talked about.

I was very inspired by the ‘festival for the living’ death weekend run at the Southbank in January 2012 whilst I was preparing for my events, now there have been a number of other festivals around the country.   I hope to see these becoming as common as gardening and music festivals. After all, death concerns each and every one of us not just a group of individuals with a particular hobby or interest.

Why not run something in your neighbourhood? It does not have to be on a large scale. Start with one evening event or a single day. Talk to local groups such as hospices, Cancer groups, Cruse, those involved with end of life care, build on the work already being done in your area. See where the gaps are.   I would like to see National Death Trust Classes running everywhere just like we have support groups for people expecting a birth. We all need lots of advice, information and support in just the same way when approaching death.   And people find themselves having amazing conversations with complete strangers and breaking down the horrible isolation caused by our avoidance of the subject.

We will be running another festival in the autumn of 2014.   If you would like to receive information about it nearer the time please email us info@woodlandburialwestmill.co.uk. We will not bombard you with emails.

For information about our burial ground visit www.woodlandburialwestmill.co.uk. We were very proud to be the runners-up in the South West region People’s awards from the Natural Death Centre.

by Liz Rothschild