In mid-May, a week-long arts and culture festival, A Matter of Life and Death at mac Birmingham explored death and dying in creative, fun and active ways.
Organised by BrumYODO, a community collective made up of artists, funeral directors, health workers, hospices and performers, and coinciding with national Dying Matters Awareness Week, A Matter of Life and Death featured speakers and performers from across the country. It attracted people of all ages to take part in activities, debates and events all aiming to encourage discussion around the sometimes taboo subject of dying.
BrumYODO is named after the Dying Matters Awareness Week 2016 slogan YODO meaning ‘you only die once’. Formed three years ago, the group’s purpose is to encourage the people of Birmingham to think about, talk about and plan for end of life.
Fran Glover, BrumYODO committee member and funeral director with A Natural Undertaking:
“Society generally seems to have a fear of talking about death and dying but our festival has shown that, given the opportunity, people are more than willing to tackle these subjects. Through debating, art activities and events we heard conversations taking place which completely challenged the belief that people don’t want to think about death and dying.
“We also found that very often in these discussions the focus then moved to life and what matters in life. Again and again we came back to the importance of relationships, families and friendship. Considering our own mortality is so important in reminding us to make the most of the time we have with the people who are important.”
As part of A Matter of Life and Death mac birmingham hosted two exhibitions – Murmuration and Celebrating Life in the Face of Death. Murmuration is a community project in which local artists Jane Thakoordin and Margaret Murray worked with different groups to create handkerchiefs embroidered with messages in different languages and paper birds. Displayed as a swirl or murmuration of birds and lines of handkerchiefs, the piece highlighted the theme of waving goodbye. During the final weekend, the artists also held workshops for visitors at mac to create their own birds, pictures and mobiles as part of the project.
Celebrating Life in the Face of Death is a photographic exhibition resulting from a competition run by the national charity Dying Matters, which asked for images linked to death, dying or bereavement. Supported by celebrity photographer Rankin, the winning entries have been made into the exhibition which opened in Birmingham and is touring the UK.
Artists were given the opportunity to get creative with the Art Macabre drawing workshop. Models took on the roles of women from Hindu traditions including Kali, the goddess of destruction and rebirth. People were also able to put pen to paper in a writing workshop with Birmingham children’s author Juliet Clare Bell.
Food artist Annabel de Vetten of Conjurer’s Kitchen hosted a Death and Dine evening in which she shared funeral food facts and encouraged the audience to try some new tastes. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery also held an Art of Death Tour which highlighted objects from different periods and cultures related to death. During the weekend, audio art experience, Woodland by French and Motterson, asked people to lie in silence in Cannon Hill Park listening to a recording describing the process by which their bodies would decay into the forest floor.
A market place at mac gave visitors the opportunity to find out more about making funeral plans, hospice care and local charities while also buying arts and artefacts. There was also the chance to take part in a behind-the-scenes visit to Redditch Crematorium and Westall Park Natural Burial Ground.
Visitors were challenged to ask and answer the question ‘what can you do?’ to encourage local communities to be compassionate for people at end of life. Hosted by Birmingham hospices St Mary’s and John Taylor, the event saw community campaigner Tommy Whitelaw sharing the story of his mother Joan’s dementia journey and urging the people of Birmingham to be compassionate for people who are dying.
“We were really pleased with how many people engaged with A Matter of Life and Death both at the events and also online and through social media,” added Fran. “We definitely achieved our aim of opening up the discussion here in Birmingham and beyond. We are very grateful to everyone who helped us make the event so successful and we are already discussing our plans for the coming year.”