Death is an inevitable fact. But what happens after? And what happens if you don’t stay dead? These questions have puzzled and captivated for thousands of years, so it is surprising how talking about death in our society is considered morbid, or even in poor taste. The Just Festival aims to open dialogue and approach controversial or taboo subjects, and this talk, part of the Death on the Fringe series, did exactly that, going above and beyond simple medical fact to provide a thought-provoking, challenging and comprehensive experience that most have very little opportunity to explore.
Addressing a packed room at the Quaker Meeting House Professor Allan Kellehear introduces himself and the subject first through a comment on the lack of demand for talks such as this, and an anecdote about his childhood. This personable, humanising opening using a donkey as a recurring theme for bias and epistemology is as absurd as it is enlightening.
Any concerns the audience has about untangling medical jargon or struggling to keep up with a man who has studied death in various forms for over 30 years are quickly quashed as Professor Kellehear’s charming, witty yet educational stories and anecdotes explain complex neuroscientific terms. This includes an explanation of our views on time compared to indigenous societies using a folded piece of paper, and the description of a transitional human figure as ‘someone you wouldn’t want to sit next to on a bus’. From the outset it is clear he wants the audience to fully understand and be involved, not simply to listen.
Beyond the clever quips real evidence is interjected, but instead of simply showing statistics and views Kellhear challenges both academic research and new age findings, displaying quotes on a PowerPoint only to highlight a list of inaccuracies including incorrect citation and exaggerations which drive home his most poignant observation: exactly how little we can confirm about the human mind.
The effect upon the audience is clear as a lively question and answer session follows. The level of interaction and the time taken to not only answer questions but open a dialogue and ask for the opinions of the audience themselves sets this talk aside from many staid academic lectures.
The only negative aspect of events like this is how infrequently they occur, and as the audience mills around the room continuing to question the speaker for a further half an hour, the single lament is that the talk didn’t last longer.
As Professor Kellehear sums up, his final words illustrate all that is great about the talk: acceptance of what is not known, a challenge of what we think we know and an invitation for us to have our own opinions. ‘Do we survive death?… Maybe.’