Death Salon UK 2014: A Look Back

I’m writing the this post sitting in the beautiful Paternoster Square next to St. Pauls Cathedral in Central London. It’s swarming with suited men and women taking time out from what I assume are some very formal jobs in the surrounding, and equally very formal, banks and institutions in The City.

I’m here for something much less staid, the very first Death Salon UK which is taking place at St Barts. Pathology museum just around the corner.

Through our work with Echoleft, we are privileged to speak to people at hospices, charities, those in the funeral industry, palliative care nurses, religious leaders, academics and many others. A varied list of wonderful people working in highly specialised professions. However, there are very few events that manage to bring all of those people together in the same physical space. Death Salon has managed just that, and it focuses around the one thing that binds all those professions, and indeed all of us, together: death.

Before I talk about the event itself, I want to just touch on the name for a moment. Death Salon is not necessarily an ‘accessible’ name for a lot of people. When I mentioned I was attending, there was certainly a response from some that it sounded ‘creepy’ or ‘weird’, perhaps this is because it’s not sombre enough or layered in enough of the normal terminology that we use to surround death in the UK. However once you discover that the name is a reclamation of the word Salon as “a gathering”, a place to “increase the knowledge of the participants through conversation”, then it starts to set an accurate and accessible tone for the event and those that attended. Until now, my main association for the word ‘salon’ was a place where the women in my life spend time having hair, nails and a variety of other body parts polished and preened. Based on how much gossip (certainly a form of knowledge) I understand to be exchanged there, the name seems completely appropriate for both.

This post is designed to give you an overview of the event and, if it sparks your interest, an incentive to research the group that organised it. Some of the talks were so relevant to what we do here at Echoleft that I’m going to write some separate posts about those. That will hopefully give me enough time to do a little more research on each topic and make them even more useful for you.

No mention of Death Salon UK would be complete without discussing the venue. I had never been to St. Barts Hospital before, although I know that area of London a little and it’s hard to walk around there without tripping over some sort of incredible historical fact about London. The hospital is beautiful, in the way that only centuries-old London buildings can be, and the fact that it’s the oldest hospital in Europe (a fact I obtained from Wikipedia, so please accept with the standard wiki-grain-of-salt) gives the pathology museum a setting with a sense of history that few venues can match. It’s a wonderful, high-ceilinged and light-filled room packed with pathological specimens spanning the rich history of London. Work is underway by Carla Valentine, the curator of the museum to make it available to the public, but in the meantime you can join their mailing list to discover more about events taking place there.

Despite what some may see as it’s unusual content, like any other conference, sorry… salon, it’s the topics, the talks and the conversations that truly make it. Over three days, the talks spanned the historical, the inspirational, the academic and the practical. I’ve interspersed some tweets here, as they managed to capture in 140 characters, and maybe a photo or two, more than my hastily typed notes could handle.

Rosie Inman-Cook’s talk, “Lifting the Lid on Dying and Funerals” told of her work at The Natural Death Centre which has been running for 24 years, and she gave some blunt opinions about the state of the funeral industry in the UK. She ran a quick straw-poll asking the audience some questions about UK funeral and burial legislation to highlight the lack of awareness in the public about this issue (I don’t think I did too bad on the awareness front!). Rosie also told some stories of local councils creating more bureaucracy than was necessary due to this lack of awareness. I’m going to follow up with Rosie and ask if she’d be willing to share some more information on this blog, but in the meantime you can find more information at www.naturaldeath.org.uk.

Simon Ferrar of Clandon Wood told the story of his life transition from a full-time builder to purchasing a beautiful piece of land in the Surrey countryside and creating a natural burial site. He speaks with the tone of someone who has truly found peace in what they do, something you hear very rarely these days. I plan to take a visit to Clandon Wood next time I’m in the area.

Sarah Troop’s fascinating look at Dia de los Muertos, the mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ began with the story of her own families cultural heritage and became a wider look at how the festival has helped define Mexico’s cultural place in the world, how it’s artwork and iconography extend far beyond it’s borders and how it now competes with Halloween and must strive to retain it’s identity against the ‘Americanisation’ of that holiday period. Sarah’s talk also focussed on the “relationship between food and death in rituals, culture, religion and society”, which ties it well to another talk by Joshua Graham which compared the relationship between food and funerals here in the UK and in the southern states of the USA.

Kirsty McNally from the NHS Blood & Transplant team spoke in detail about the issues faced when asking people to donate organs, including how donation rates vary across different demographics, often for religious and cultural reasons. There has been progress made however, as the NHS reached their goal to increase the number of donors by 50% over a 5 year period. If you wish to sign up to become a donor, please visit www.organdonation.nhs.uk

Annie Broadbent gave a hugely personal talk, “We Need to Talk about Grief”, covering her new book about the the death of her mother and her subsequent research into grief, giving a list of ‘Do’s’ and ‘Dont’s’ which she’s written up on her blog.

John Troyer from The Centre for Death and Society at Bath University gave an excellent talk on “The Future of Death Technology”. He showed some examples from the Future Cemetery project of augmented reality: actors portraying some of the people in the cemetery who are shown via an app on your mobile phone when you visit. I personally liked his perspective of the opt-in nature of much of the technology, “It’s pervasive, but not pernicious.”

The event was brought to a close by Caitlin Doughty, one of the co-founders of Death Salon (famous for her ‘Ask A Mortician’ videos) who spoke about how caring for the dead body can help people deal with a bereavement.

I’m afraid I only had time mention a few of the talks here, for a full list you can visit their website.

Megan Rosenbloom, one of the organisers, noted how many of the speakers began their talks with “I don’t normally speak at events like this.” Her observation on this was a simple one. “There are no events like this.” That’s what made it so useful for me personally. It’s likely I may never have had cause to research some of the topics that were discussed, and would never have been aware of the amount of effort, hard work and thought being poured into research that is designed to inform, to help, to change and improve the way we deal with death and bereavement.

As I mentioned, this isn’t the last mention of Death Salon UK 2014 on our blog. I’m going to dedicate a few posts to specific talks that are really applicable to our end-of-life planning and preparation work, and our beautiful online memorials. In the meantime, if you’re interested in finding out more, visit www.deathsalon.org