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Death - The Great Unmentionable

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Let's talk about death. No? You'd rather not think about it? Another time, perhaps? This is often the response I get when raising this subject. It seems our modern relationship with mortality is far from comfortable. While we love to parade it across cinema and TV screens in its goriest incarnations, when it comes to real death, we hide it behind a curtain of medical procedures, materialism, and euphemism. We evade the truth with phrases like "passed away" or dismiss it cheerily as "kicking the bucket" or "biting the dust."

Yet death is a subject worthy of thought and discussion. At London's Southbank this month, a new festival - at which I'll be speaking - is designed to inspire just that, with lectures, exhibitions, music, installations and workshops.

And it's appropriate that an arts centre is putting together this mortality fest. For death has inspired some of mankind's greatest artistic endeavours - think India's Taj Mahal or China's Ming Tombs. Take the pyramids of Egypt. As sarcophagi go, how much more impressive can you get?

It was my curiosity about the remarkable creativity sparked by death that inspired me to set off on the journeys resulting in my book Making an Exit. After all, I thought, if writers like to tell you about the thousand places to see before you die, what about the best places to end up in when you're dead?

More importantly, I was curious about my father's last request. He'd always dismissed the idea that what was left after a person took their last breath had any significance ("organic matter", he called it). Yet in the end, he left us precise instructions for the scattering of his remains. This got me asking questions about the way we mark the passing of our fellows and how we approach our own mortality.

What I found was that - over the centuries and across cultures - humans have disposed of our dead with extraordinary flair and diversity. Not only do we bury our loved ones in the ground. We also burn them in fire, stow them in caves and leave them hanging in trees. In naval circles, we consign them to the ocean. In some places, we leave corpses as carrion, inviting birds to pick the bones dry. In others, we toss the remains of our fellows into sacred rivers to the sound of bells and the swirl of incense.

Modern society has little room for these traditions. And in their absence, what do we do for our dead? We tend to make hasty decisions while under extreme emotional distress - decisions we later regret. Often that means black suits and expensive, dreary coffins names like "Ambassador" or "Chancellor".

Yet other options do exist. At the Southbank Centre, a display of personalised caskets from Nottingham's Crazy Coffins and Pa Joe's workshop in Ghana shows how you can leave this world in something far more creative than a wooden box. (I travelled to Ghana to commission my own model - it's in the shape of the Empire State Building).

You can now be sent off in eco-friendly coffins in everything from wool and wicker to bamboo, or simple cardboard boxes decorated with photographs or children's drawings. Farewells range from woodland burials to humanist funeral services. Some companies will even arrange a firework display in which your ashes are part of the pyrotechnics.

For those who'd like to take up any of these options, it's critical to let relatives or friends know in advance. You can even save the details online. On sites such as mywonderfullife.com, mylastsong.com and whenimdeadandgone.com, you choose the music and readings and store all the details online, giving passwords to the friends or relatives you want to make the arrangements.

Of course, since it's hard to contemplate the idea of dying at all, we often hesitate to make these choices ahead of time. But talking about death won't kill you. In fact, doing so can help all concerned, eliminating the guesswork for those left behind. Making a graceful exit is a choice we all have - but achieving it requires some advance planning.

Sarah Murray is author of Making an Exit: From the Magnificent to the Macabre, How We Dignify the Dead (Coptic Publishing, London 2011; St Martin's Press, New York 2011; Picador, New York 2012); www.makinganexit.net

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