A Birmingham arts and culture festival is tackling the taboos of death and dying with a programme of theatre, film, food, art and crafts, exhibitions, tours and discussion.
A Matter of Life and Death, between May 10-26, is aiming to encourage open and honest conversation about death and dying through a variety of events aimed at all ages.
Organised by BrumYODO, a diverse community collective featuring health professionals, undertakers, artists, hospice staff and lawyers, this is the third year the team has organised a festival in the city.
And this year it takes in a range of venues including the Electric Cinema, The Coffin Works, Library of Birmingham, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Ort Gallery and the John Lewis Community Hub.
Kicking off A Matter of Life and Death is Annabel de Vetten of Conjurer’s Kitchen with a Movie Taste-Along to the cult horror Sleepy Hollow, starring Johnny Depp. Audiences will be biting into delicious treats inspired by the Tim Burton film.
“It will be a light-hearted night to set the mood for a positive start to the festival,” says Annabel, whose Conjurer’s Kitchen creates fantastical works of food art. “Sleepy Hollow is ideal for a death-themed festival but it also has a real fun element to it.
“During the Movie Taste-Along I pause the film at certain points and then hand out an edible representation of what is on the screen - I’m not saying what they will be because they are a surprise and they certainly won’t be what people expect!”
Annabel held a hugely successful Death and Dine event for last year’s A Matter of Life and Death and says she is honoured to be launching this year’s festival.
“It is a real privilege to be included in the festival full stop but then I am thrilled to have the launch event,” she says. “I hope this event will set the whole tone for the festival.
“A Matter of Life and Death is so important because it’s about making people aware of the possibilities that are open to them and that there are so many ways of celebrating someone’s life after they have gone. These things can be very personal and very positive.
“Death is something which is going to happen to us all and we can plan for it but instead we leave it until it’s too late and then it’s all mixed up with grief and loss. The festival is about making people have those conversations as they are so often viewed as taboo in society.”
Another highlight of the festival is also food-related. Death over Dinner is an evening of dining and death talk with performances and speakers.
Taking place at Stirchley Baths on Saturday May 12, programme manager and BrumYODO committee member Antonia Beck says Death over Dinner will be a very special evening.
“Death over Dinner will be a truly unique event,” she says. “We are inviting audiences to gather around a table to enjoy a delicious three-course feast, intriguing conversations about death and dying and a line-up of performances and speakers.
“Our evening programme so far includes performer Joanne Tremarco who will sharing an extract of her beautiful show The Birth of Death and speaker Hilary Grainger of the Birmingham and West Midlands Victorian Society and we’re still adding to the programme.”
During the day on Saturday May 12, Birmingham Library hosts A Matter of Life and Death’s family events with performances of Bootworks Theatre’s The Many Doors of Frank Feelbad, exploring bereavement for young people. Local charity Inspiring Lives will be chatting about how to support families and children who have a sibling who has died, is dying or seriously ill and there will be art activities for all ages.
During the afternoon Ort Gallery in Balsall Heath hosts a discussion event called Death, Faith and Cancer which is presented in association with artist Charlotte Jarvis’ exhibition Et in Arcadia Ego.
An artist who collaborates with scientists, Charlotte’s project saw her growing a tumour from her own body cells and aims to encourage discussions around cancer and mortality. Inspired by a painting by French artist Nicolas Poussin in the Louvre Gallery in Paris, Charlotte’s work challenges audiences to re-think ideas and language around cancer.
“The image conjured of patients fighting cancer casts cancer as the external agent; something alien to be waged war against, so that dying of cancer becomes both the fault of the patient and the result of something ‘other’ to their bodies,” says Charlotte, whose work has previously been shown at the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Southbank Centre and in galleries across Europe.
“I had previously made a number of biological artworks using cell cultures harvested from my own body and I became interested in developing a piece of work which would interrogate these metaphors, challenge the idea of cancer as ‘other’ to us and probe my relationship to mortality.
“The project combines art and science to examine mortality and create a public dialogue about cancer. Everyone has some experience of cancer but we believe that this is particularly important in the current context of cancer services within the local community of Ort Gallery and the wider Birmingham area.”
And she is delighted that her project is part of the May festival.
“I feel the A Matter of Life and Death festival is vital and I am incredibly proud to be part of it.”
Birmingham participatory artists Jane Thakoordin and Margaret Murray are holding a series of creative workshops on Friday at the John Lewis Community Hub and Saturday at the Library of Birmingham as well as subsequent dates at the Ort Gallery. The artists, who have been part of the festival since its foundation, have been inspired by Charlotte’s exhibition to create the activity called Precious.
“We will work with participants to create a series of miniature extinct, fanciful and surreal creatures,” says Jane. “They will be entombing precious objects, ‘dead’ creatures and artefacts in beautiful, precious, intricate final resting places. These tiny creatures will be exhibited in a bespoke cabinet, reminiscent of a lepidopterist’s cabinet.
“We hope people will be engaged in thinking about extinction, loss to the planet of creatures - some of whom we may never have even seen other than in images or drawings. This metaphor of imaginary creatures is one that enables us to talk about loss, death, acceptance and the rhythm of life.”
Which is in keeping with the aims of A Matter of Life and Death.
“BrumYODO is a wonderful way to entice people into a world where they can immerse themselves in the creative process and allow themselves to reflect and contemplate their own journey through life,” says Jane. “It is always a pleasure and a privilege to have conversations with people about their views on death - for some people it can be for the very first time.”
On Friday May 11 the festival takes over the Community Hub at John Lewis in the city centre where a day of free activities offers people the chance to take part in workshops looking at funeral planning and will writing as well as a Death Café in which people are invited to discuss issues around death and dying over tea and cake.
On Sunday May 13, the festival moves to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for a free tour, The Shadow of Death exploring items in the collection focussing on mortality, and a Death Café. There’s also a marketplace with local lawyers advising on will-writing and hospice staff and death doulas providing information on end of life planning. That afternoon, in partnership with Still Walking Festival, there is also the chance to explore hidden and public death-related places of Birmingham on a newly created walking tour of the city.
A Matter of Life and Death is rounded off with the Crema-tour-ium, a behind-the-scenes visit to Redditch Crematorium and to Westall Park Natural Burial Ground on Saturday May 26.
BrumYODO has held events in Birmingham for four years and launched A Matter of Life and Death, which is supported by Arts Council England, last year. The team has won national acclaim and two awards for community engagement for the festival which coincides with Hospice UK’s national Dying Matters Awareness Week.
BrumYODO chair Anna Lock said: “Each year we’ve found that arts and activities are a fantastic way of encouraging open and honest conversations about death and dying – subjects that society generally shies away from.
“This year’s A Matter of Life and Death is packed with lots of very different activities which we hope will make people laugh, will encourage them to chat and will definitely make them think.
“We are still adding events to the programming so watch this space for more.”