Dying to talk about death

Talking about death was always considered a taboo but as we start to question the meaning of life there is an increasing curiosity to explore the end. Sophie Marsden investigates a growing appetite to talk…

In the end we will all ‘kick the bucket’, ‘pop our clogs’ or ‘bite the big one’, Death is the one thing we can count on. But despite a variety of ways to say ‘you will die’ we get lost for words when discussing our own mortality. We instinctively distance ourselves from the subject by avoiding the discussion and even the word. This avoidance has become an art – we outsource where we can, leaving the crucial parts to an undertaker and whispered innuendo. We turn up at funerals dressed in black, offer our condolences and try our best to focus on conversations about life. How ironic. But there is a longing to airbrush the imperfections of the past with an increasing craving for a ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ of funeral choices and a more expressive approach to death.

Introducing a new trend, pop-up cafes where death is on the menu. Death Cafes offer a new way of making sense of the end – our own, our friends’ and our family’s, a place where strangers can meet to talk about death and dying. For those uninitiated, Death Cafes were inspired by the Swiss concept of ‘Café Mortal’, born out of the French ‘Philosophy Cafes’ that originated in the 20th century.

Inventor, sociologist Bernard Crettaz wanted to bring death into everyday conversation by holding discussion groups in public. Advocator of the British movement, Jon Underwood was inspired by his work and suggests that talking about death doesn’t have to be morbid. “It can be very liberating because the way our society shuts down conversations about death can be claustrophobic and stifling so I find that there is a feeling of relief and people talk with a real authenticity and passion, but with lots of laughter thrown in.” Jon held the first official British Death Café in the basement of his home in 2011. He felt there was a need for death education in Britain and has since inspired over 50 other events through a ‘how to’ guide on his website.

It was all smiles after an afternoon of death talk

It was all smiles after an afternoon of death talk

Lets talk about death

I joined a Death Cafe held by Josefine Speyer, psychotherapist and co-founder of the Natural Death Centre. Set-up in her decorative living room in a town house in central London, the elegant woman in her sixties greeted me with a warm smile. She tells me that her motto is to “embrace death as part of life” and stresses the importance of death education within society.

“It’s a bit like sex education, death education. It’s best to know all about it so you can aim for what you really want.”

Josefine suggests the problem is that we no longer feel that death is imminent. Advances in science now allow most of us to live past our eighties – a stark contrast to a century ago when you were lucky to make it to fifty. The latest ONS report revealed that death is in decline with 2011 marking the lowest death toll ever recorded in England and Wales. But death is still a part of our lives and people do die so what should we do if we want to talk about it? “Death Café is a wonderful way of inviting people from whatever level to approach it. Sometimes people don’t know how to talk about death because they haven’t been brought up to talk about it,” says Josefine. As a beginner in this death debate I shift in my seat nervously as eight strangers take their seats around me.

Guests share books and stories with each other

Guests share books and stories with each other

I was surprised at the diversity of those who attended. There were a variety of age groups, genders and, most importantly, an assortment of attitudes. Some had a background in the funeral industry and wanted to find a way to connect with bereaved families, others were there to try to come to terms with their grief by sharing stories of their deceased loved-ones. They spoke about rituals conducted to commemorate the dead, with many advocating a ‘new’ more personalised funeral and others remaining set on the traditional “cutting of the cord.” For many there was a sense of yearning, for a time when society hadn’t become so removed from death. One gentleman suggested that an undertaker’s purpose was to provide detachment. He said: “Taking the body away to be prepped behind the closed doors of the mortuary – out of sight and therefore out of mind.” Another women, Catherina Petit-van Hoey, suggested that the problem of outsourcing the care of our dead was that it stops us from dealing with death in a healthy way.

 “In the past and in lots of other communities in the world, people care for the dead themselves, they prepare the body and help organise the funeral and in doing that we discover so much healing energy.”

New approaches

Catherina’s daughter, Kiama died suddenly of Lemierre’s syndrome in May 2012. The 22-year-old was due to graduate Norwich University of the Arts in the summer when she was admitted to hospital and later died. “We realised that she was a very creative person and hated things like black hearses and things like that, and there was no way we would have a traditional service,” said Catherina.


Catherina (left) and Ilana (Right) decorate the coffin

Instead they held a life celebration, decorating her coffin with Facebook tributes and cuttings of her artwork. They also rented a VW camper van to take the coffin to the crematorium – the van Kiama had dreamed of going travelling in. Catherina explained that it was therapeutic for her to do something with her hands and talked of how it helped her to re-balance her life. Catherina and her family are not alone. The funeral industry has seen an influx in more personalised do-it-yourself funerals with programmes such as BBC 2’s ‘Dead Good Job’ and Channel 5’s ‘Bizarre Burials’ showcasing our appetite for the weird and the wonderful funeral alternatives. There is also a growing popularity for younger people to create a ‘bucket list’ – a note of all the things you want to do before you die. The term stems from the phrase ‘kick the bucket’ and was made popular by the release of the film in 2007. New research shows that over half of those aged between 18-44 have already written one, are thinking about what to include in one or are planning to write one in the future.


Kiama’s bucket list inspired others

Kiama’s family were surprised to discover a list she had written a year before her death, with her notes including “don’t hold on to your dreams or you will just keep dreaming” and as Catherina passed a copy around the table they no longer felt like strangers. Within the space of an afternoon we had laughed, debated and chatted, tackling the big life questions of how you will die? What funeral you would like? And whether we were all just plain strange for even talking about it? But as we all said our goodbyes it wasn’t death I was thinking about, it was life and how from now on I was going to make the most of it.


Fashion brand La Mort Clothing incorporates death into everyday life

La Mort clothingWithin the bustle of Camden Market overlooking the lock on the East Yard you’ll find analternative showcase of avant-garde fashion. La Mort Clothing – translated as ‘the mortality’ presents a unique street wear brand that combines death-laced designs with contemporary graphic art.

This stand out funereal fashion challenges the norm by incorporating detailed macabre imagery into everyday life.

“If you had asked me two years ago I’d have said that death wasn’t really a huge part of peoples natural conversations, but nowadays it has definitely become more fashionable,” says designer Faye Winslade.


“You only have to look at some of the high street stores such as River Island where skulls and death imagery has become more mainstream. I think our clothing brand has come at the right time and can act as a conversation starter.”

Faye started the company a year ago with fellow designer Dave Underwood, the pair met in 2005, while studying at the Wimbledon School of Art and bonded over a mutual love for drawing and an obsession with macabre symbolism.

“We kind of just came together and started doing it really,” explains Faye, “we are both very in tune with each other and thought it would be great to turn what we love into a business.”

Bright_Tat_Con_Web_0131The brand currently focuses on the creation of T-shirts for men and women, which are sold at around £20, as well as posters and bag designs, with the majority of the imagery formulated around an iconic skull pattern. The handcrafted images can take over a month to generate due to the meticulous detail that goes into the creative process – something Faye says their customers really appreciate.

Bright_Tat_Con_Web_003Inspiration for the designs are acquired from a variety of places, including books about death and symbolism within plays written by Shakespeare. Although the images tend to focus around the skull – a key identifier of death – the clothing also expresses biblical images as the artists try to depict a narrative within their designs.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for La Mort Clothing, as with any small business, it has taken the designers a while to get used to the business side of things. Despite being great artists, they have had little previous experience in a business environment, and building the company from the ground up can be tough.

“We have had learn to work together productively as a team” says Faye,

“It has taken a while for us to set up sort of all the boring stuff, like money and publicising ourselves, but hopefully we will become much more popular within the years to come.”

Their most popular sales so far have been through advertising at tattoo conventions across the country, as well as their small pop up store in Camden.

“When we went to the tattoo convention last year on a fluke, we didn’t expect to sell anything, but we suddenly realised that a lot of the people that attend are our target audience. They really appreciate the handcrafted designs,” explains Faye.

Bright_Tat_Con_Web_002La Mort recently attended the Brighton tattoo convention where they were able to showcase and sell the new additions and designs that had been added to the product line. Previous publicity also includes the International London tattoo convention and Sweden’s Nyon’s on Fire Festival where the frontman of the Swedish metal band ‘Conjonctive’ felt inspired to wear their T-shirt designs.

However the clothing range has not been without criticism; the controversial imagery can sometimes attract negative attention from the public, in particularly from those of a religious faith.

“We can get quite a few negative responses when we sell our work in Camden,” explains Faye,

“Very religious people often think that because we are drawing skulls we are automatically worshipping the devil, when it’s completely not like that we are just interested in that subject matter.”

Faye suggests that even some of her family members had reservations about her interest in drawing macabre artwork during university, as she remembers a time her mum asked “why she couldn’t paint something nicer like flowers.”

“ I stuck with it and now she’s 100 percent behind it, she can see how good we are and all of the family like to get involved. We couldn’t do it without them actually, they take us to the tattoo conventions and are all involved in the business in a hands on way, which is great.”

With a smart brand and website to match, these quirky designers hope their innovative imagery will not only get them noticed but will also make the intricate detail that goes into the art of death imagery more accepted and appreciated within the mainstream fashion world.

“We hope that our brand can get into shops and that we can work with others that are interested in fashion to help us expand on our t-shirt range. We are really passionate about drawing, but we are new to the fashion side of things so it would be great to work with others in the future. But for now we are focused on doing some more tattoo conventions and touring around the county to get more well known!” Says Faye.

La Mort clothing’s full range of products can be seen here. And be sure to follow them on Twitter @Lamortclothing

Would you wear death imagery have your say at @dyingtotalk

Funeral Photographer Rachel Wallace shares her experiences of photographing our final farewell

A loved-ones funeral is tragic and sad but it is also a time where families unite to pay tributes to those they have lost. Funeral photography provides an opportunity to capture some of those sentimental moments in a respectful and symbolic way.

Listen to this podcast where Rachel Wallace tells me how her photographs can help the bereaved come to terms with their loss.

Take a look at a selection of her photographs in the slideshow below
You can also visit her website Farewell Photography here

What makes a good funeral? – Author of ‘The Good Funeral Guide’ shares his view

What makes a good funeral?

It is considered customary to commemorate the death of a loved one by hosting one final farewell, whether this is in the the form of a funeral or memorial service is up to you, but it is important to know what choices are available.

A cremation manager once told me that planning a funeral is like planning a wedding in 7 days, it can be so overwhelming with a million and one questions to think about and you might not have all the answers.

  • Did they want a cremation, a burial or a natural burial?
  • What kind of coffin did they want?
  • Do you want to view/ dress/ wash a loved one in order to prepare them for their funeral?
  • Is the ceremony going to be religious/ non-religious/ spiritual or a mix of each?
  • Do we wear black/ white/ pink/ green?

Find out what Charles Cowling, author of ‘The Good Funeral Guide‘ has to say about what makes a good funeral

The Good Funeral Guide is a non-profit organisation that helps consumers to arrange the right funeral for them. Offering advice and information on the different types of funeral options available.

Dressing the dead: Q&A with fashion designer Pia Interlandi

Meet Pia Interlandi, a fashion designer from Melbourne whose work involves creating biodegradable ‘Garments for the Grave’. She began experimenting with dissolvable fabrics as a method of exploring life’s transience. With the view of clothing as a second skin, Pia investigates the role that fashion can play at the end of life by asking these three questions; 

What will you wear?
Who will dress you?
What will you leave behind?

Her mix and match burial garments are designed to return to the earth along with the wearer and have recently been exhibited at the London Science Museum, London Print Studios and Graveland Exhibition.

Pia is currently working in the UK as a resident dresser with Clandon Wood Natural Burial Ground

Explain what it is like to dress a dead body?

What was the inspiration behind the creation of biodegradable garments?

I was doing some artistic experimental fashion and looking at things like dissolvable garments that dissolve when you sweat and I realised that it was really about transformation and clothing as this second skin that we wear.

The wrapping of the body – picture by Devika Bilimoria

The wrapping of the body – picture Devika Bilimoria

Then my Italian grandfather died, my Nonno, I went to dress him for his burial and my grandmother, his wife of 60 years, had chosen his best suit. There was a lot of awkwardness in dressing him, we had to move him around a lot and you know he was dead so it was confronting,  but for me it was really about his shoes. While doing up these leather shoes I thought, I’m going to be honest here he’s not going to be walking anywhere.

After I dressed him I went back and I became really interested in the biodegradability of fibres and the dead body. During the funeral you need to wrap them and care for them in something that’s ceremonious or tells you a story about their life and their beliefs and so I started creating garments for that.

How did you begin the process to create these garments?

I did a lot of forensic experiments in terms of how fibres decompose in a burial scenario. In Australia we have an anatomy act, which basically says you can’t use human beings for experimental research, so we used pigs. That’s a big body of my research, ‘The Pig Project’, every 50 days for a year we would go and recover these three pigs that I had dressed and washed and named and just look at how the fibres were reacting to that kind of nutrient bag of chemical exchanges happening under ground.

What are these garments made out of?

A full shroud – picture by Devika Bilimoria

A full shroud – picture Devika Bilimoria

I have a prototype model, which is the garment I start with and the garment I have spent a couple of years developing. I use natural fibres so primarily hemp, which is a very fast growing plant, it decomposes quite quickly but not so quickly that it falls apart. The idea is that you completely wrap the body and then it becomes almost a wrapping that provides a psychological barrier for the living, but then once in the earth it will break away and unwrap the body for the nutrients.

What can a client expect, do they have a lot of choice?

A lot of the fibres I design with now have intent in terms of how long they should last with the body. A lot of people who are choosing natural burial are choosing for nothing to remain, but there are some people who want something to last with the skeleton. That could be an embroidered name – in a synthetic like polyester or nylon, so that as the body is released the message from the garment also emerges and can be laid with the skeleton.

Do you feel it is important for the bereaved to dress their loved ones?

Absolutely, one of the things that has become really important in my research about death is how disconnected we are from the actual dead body. When I dressed my grandfather, it was him but it was just his shell, the energy or the soul or the spirit has just gone somewhere else, so you can let that body go because you understand that they are not in there anymore.

I think that’s a really important part of the bereavement process that we actually miss in this day and age and within this particular culture. I’m basically saying to people this is an important part; this is what is going into the ground with this person, this is the last thing they are ever going to wear.

Do you feel you have become desensitised to the dead?

Every dead body is different, every person is individual and so there are some things that I still go wow, that cancer really ravaged that person, or I expected a lot more violence to have happened to that body.

That doesn’t mean that I’m comfortable with death, it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be sad when my parents or my friends die. Death is always tragic and sad. There are things that I have acclimatised to and because I can deal calmly in the face of the death of others, I can take a family through that process in a calm and comforting manner and make that process a lot easier for them.

Have you thought about whether you would like to be dressed in end of life garments?

When I do go… if I’m at home I’d like my family to come and dress me and have a natural burial. Whether that’s in one of my garments – well it is probably going to be in one of my garments – I might change what shape it is or what colour it is or I might start doing a patchwork of fabrics that are meaningful to me. I’m not quite sure yet, but  just natural fibres thank you.

Find out more about Pia’s work in a documentary coming soon – check out the promo
Website: http://www.piainterlandi.com/