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Is our approach to death far too serious? Death: The Southbank Centre Festival for the Living breathes life into that theory.

WORDS: JAHN VANNISSELROY

In 2010, comedian Markus Birdman stared the Grim Reaper in the face. And the Reaper stared back. At 40, Birdman woke up blind as the result of a stroke, wondering if he was to live or die. He eventually managed to make the Reaper blink first – whether Birdman was helped by fact he couldn‘t really see, no one really knows – and now uses his brush with death to make others laugh, or, as is equally often the case, shift uncomfortably in their seats.

To Birdman, death has become a real concept, rather than the abstract ‘yeah, I‘m going to die’ acknowledgement most of us will grudgingly give if pressed. It made him far more aware of the need not to sweat the small stuff and any stress about his mortgage seem instantly irrelevant.

And while the last thing he wants is a non-stop flashing fluorescent reminder of mortality, Birdman, sight partially restored, has become an advocate for opening up about the end of life and breaking down the surrounding taboos that pervade our society, mostly to our detriment. He‘s not alone.

The funnyman is part of a large group performing at this week's Death: Southbank Centre's Festival For The Living, a gathering that aims to demystify the final act of life. Philosophers, scientists, artists, undertakers, anthropologists and psychiatrists will all share their experience on the topic. As well as discussion and debate, great funeral music will be showcased; a collection of modern, it‘s-such-a-shame-to-bury-them coffins from Ghana will be displayed; and there‘ll be poetry and performance about our approach and attitude to the one universally uncomfortable topic.

It may seem uneasy subject matter, but it shouldn‘t, Birdman (above) says. “Death can be funny,“ he insists. “It‘s up there with sex and religion. And there‘s lots of black humour out there. People appreciate you telling the truth … as long as it’s funny. It‘s great making people laugh but if you can make them think and or feel, that’s a nice area to be in – even if it is about ‘the end’."

But the man who admits he would take on a gig at a funeral – although he does view it as the ultimate challenge – laments the Western world‘s attitude to death, especially in contrast to the approach of other cultures.


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Death in London: Southbank Centre's Festival For the Living
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