We need to talk about coffins

Two festivals of death will be far more fun than you’d think.

Given that our lives all end the same way, it's strange how little we talk about death. I mean death in its factual, personal inevitability - not grief (dissected for memoirs), or suicide (a favourite of the ghoulish press) or assisted suicide (a political debate, which can at times feel oddly dislocated from the human being at its centre). After the sweaty, middle-of-the-night childhood moment when we realise our end
is inevitable, we tend to shy away from the topic, if we can.

There are exceptions: Julian Barnes's Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008) was a rare-in-its-honesty, meandering exploration of mortality. In the same year, the Wellcome Collection held an exhibition of photographs taken of people in the final stages of illness, accompanied by still-haunting images of them taken shortly after death. Then, last year, the world's first death "fair" - Le Salon de la Mort - was held in the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris. Jessie Westenholz, its founder, says the idea came from her own experience: "My mother, my father, my brother died young . . . I've had to deal with that. And I thought, you have to start talking about this, it's the only thing you don't talk about. You talk about sex, you talk about money, you talk about violence, but you don't talk about this."

Of the 14,600 people who visited the fair over three days, many were reticent at first, "But once they were asked a question, then they talked for hours." Everyone, inevitably, had had some kind of encounter with death or loss.

The fair will happen again this April, with the shudder-inducing theme of death and children ("children are so much more honest [about death]", says Westenholz). Coffin-makers and artists will show off their wares, psychologists and philosophers will give lectures. The aim is to encourage a conversation that, in an increasingly secular France, remains taboo. Nothing, she believes, has replaced the Catholic Church as a home for both the ceremony of mourning and the understanding of mortality - people are simply afraid of broaching the subject.

By coincidence, London's Southbank Centre will go on its own morbid adventure (the more bluntly named Death: Southbank Centre's Festival for the Living) at the end of this month. "Talking about death can't be only the province of religion," says the director, Jude Kelly, whose interest in the theme began when she "realised that the Wootton Bassett phenomenon was something we needed to give real thought to". As she watched televised footage of soldiers' coffins being carried through the small Wiltshire town in front of gathered crowds, Kelly wondered how a secular society is supposed to respond to death and thought a festival might help answer the question.

The result is a weekend of varied activity - from the poet Christopher Reid discussing A Scattering, a collection of poems about the death of his wife, to a New Orleans-style funeral procession ending in the Festival Hall. Kelly hopes the event will be uplifting, or at least leavened with black humour. But ultimately, the purpose is to investigate a subject that, as she puts it, is "common to us all, yet remains a mystery".

Death: Southbank Centre's Festival for the Living is on 27-29 January. Salon de la Mort is in Paris, on 12-14 April

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?