“We are in uncharted territory when we sit with death,” Liz Rothschild says in her one-woman show,
each audience member leaves with a fold-out list of alternative funeral services and death-focused organisations
This statement is only partly true, in recent years conversations about mortality, euthanasia, green funerals and the possibility of choosing a ‘Good Death’ have entered the national consciousness. Death Cafes are springing up across the nation and last year in this very city, Fabrica Gallery ran a series of talks and events on the theme of death in conjunction with Fragility, an exhibition they’d commissioned from Macedonian-born Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Death is in.
Yet the statement is true in a more primal way: none of us truly know what happens to us as we die. The process of slippage, from living to not, is by its very nature unknowable. Those who have experienced it can never report back. So where does that leave us? How can we live when mortality is incurable?.
Rothschild is an actress, a celebrant and an owner of a green burial ground (Westmill Woodland in Oxfordshire) and each of these three facets inform this show. There are elements of the solemn and ritualistic: witness Rothschild weaving her own coffin out of rods of willow, lighting a candle, or sitting still and listening to an extract from Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. Yet most of the show is lively and performative.She has a fondness for regional accents as she recounts anecdotes, facts and cautionary tales about funerals, wills, burial practices and the plethora of choices available to us.
We hear stories of death courses held for suicidal workers in South Korea, about how after some time lying in coffins, the depressed rise up with a renewed appreciation for life and the folly of certain botanical chemists, who breed roses to last longer by removing ethylene, the agent that gives the flower its sweet scent. Some of the facts Rothschild shares were startling to me; that it is legal to bury a human corpse in your garden (you can actually bury up to three!), and that 70% of us die without leaving a will or any instructions about our funeral arrangements.
That we have a choice in deciding how we die and are commemorated is the main point to take away from the show - literally, as each audience member leaves with a fold-out list of alternative funeral services and death-focused organisations.
At times, the show suffers from being rather sanitised. This is a safe show about death: no pain, or disease, or incommensurable grief to be found. Yet overall, this is a generous, large-hearted piece of theatre that reminds us simultaneously of the terrifying inevitability of death, and the comforting possibility of choice.