This weekend a friend and I went to the South Bank Festival For the Living, a 3 day event for ordinary people to explore more about death and dying. It was incredibly refreshing, and sold out. The queues for presentations went round the block and people were turned away; special events were crammed beyond capacity; people of all ages and many backgrounds attended- Atheists, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, Spiritualists, lawyers, funeral directors, artists, veterans, charities and Jon Snow all rubbed along very well in a manner that, it seemed, surprised the organizers: this was far more popular than they had expected and the debates were passionate.
If there was one theme that developed from all the events I attended it was that death has become ignored in a mechanistic world. One woman spoke of her feelings of dislocation when her father’s death and beginning a new job coincided. She told no one at work about her bereavement because she felt her new colleagues would resent her. Many people spoke about having to ‘do’ bereavement in 2 weeks, done and dusted. And of course, we’ll all have heard of very seriously ill people being found fit for work who die a fortnight later. Not even being terminally ill must get in the way of productivity.
Dying and bereavement are two of the big taboos, much greater than sex. We live in a secular society from which ritual has been removed, even the religious amongst us must keep brief the careful, communal ceremonies that help move us out of society and everyday life, through dying, death, bereavement and support the living in the move back into everyday life. Death ritual, like all other ritual, exists to move people from on way of life to another but today it seems to be limited to one day with one half hour funeral, everything else being administrative or legal. This in the face of the most distressing event we’re ever likely to experience.
There’s no one way to grieve, everyone finds their own way in their own time, if they’re given the time. The increase of complicated bereavements my colleagues and I have been seeing in the last five years suggests that people just don’t seem to be getting the time they need. If this weekend is anything to go by the pressure to change that for the better is well under way.
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