A Festival for Death

Much has been written about the Viennese and their relationship with death, and many paintings and films have been dedicated to it.

Now, Memento Mori is the first festival in Vienna to fo- cus on dying, while also aiming to encourage us to live better. We met initi- ator and curator Tina Zickler for a chat.

In your past work as a curator, you’ve explored the form of the labyrinth and created two plant labyrinths in Vienna. It’s not only in the Christian tradition that labyrinths symbolise a journey of self-discovery, with the middle point representing death. Is your in- tercultural festival Memento Mori a continuation of this work?

In a way, yes. Themes like becoming, de- veloping and passing away obviously play a major role when you focus on labyrinths. Ultimately, it’s all about confronting life and death with a certain composure and assurance. Many people are traumatised by their experiences of death and mourning, but they don’t speak about it in everyday life.

On the festival website, you write that talking about death is also a means of thinking about one’s own life. To what extent do you hope that Memento Mori gives people support and motivates them to lead more conscious lives?

We can be the catalyst for people to ask themselves key questions: What do I want to achieve in life? Have I lived the life I always wanted? Why didn’t I do this or that? If you’ve led the life you wanted to lead, you’re more contented, and this makes death easier to bear.

Earlier generations had more exposure to death. The dead used to be laid out at home, for example. Is the festival also an attempt to make us stop suppressing the idea of death?

This development is a gradual process that fits in well with today’s society, with old age becoming taboo, the propensity for self-optimisation, or the permanent quest to be incessantly happy. Suffering and dying are an integral part of life, yet they are completely blocked out today. Every image of a beautiful woman that you see has first been retouched. Old age gets erased. Many people don’t even know anymore that they have the right to keep their deceased loved ones at home for a while. As a result, the dead are usually not laid out at home. It would be a wonderful opportunity to bid farewell properly, yet we rarely take the time for this ritual.

Memento Mori was largely planned during the Coronavirus crisis. What mark has the pandemic left in terms of the way society deals with the theme of death?

The introduction of the various Covid rules meant that many people were no longer able to visit their relatives in care homes. As a result, many old people died alone. Not to be supported by your loved ones through- out the process of dying is a nightmare – such a thing must never happen again. It was also traumatic for the relatives left be- hind not to be able to say goodbye. This is another important point where we need to start a social dialogue about how we han- dle death and mourning.

▶ Memento Mori: 07–17/10/2021 Volkskundemuseum. 8., Laudongasse 15–19 festival-memento-mori.at