A retrospective overview of the Death and The Sacred Symposium (22nd March 2019) at Manchester Metropolitan University by Dr Becky Alexis-Martin (Lecturer in Cultural and Political Geography at Manchester Metropolitan University) who submitted and presented the paper ‘Deus Ex Atomica: Death, memorialisation and nuclear warfare’. 

Coffin And Art At The Symposium

A display coffin lies open on the stage before an animated conversation begins. It contains the artwork (pictured above) of Siobhan Maguire-Broad, shrouded in fabric soaked in graveyard dirt and scattered with mourning tokens. These photographs from the digital age are sheer simulacrum, a contemporary representation of Victorian death. The audience whispers of cathedrals and devils, the apocalypse and the Brontes, the rituals and practices that create a dialogue between humanity and spirituality in literature and beyond. The Death and the Sacred conference explored remembrance, memorialisation and martyrs. It spanned from the profane and the mundane, to consider a diverse array of themes deemed sacred and their interactions with death. This astonishing event occurred thanks to the work of Dr Eleanor Beal, who was the conference organiser and has recently published an edited book entitled “Horror and Religion: New Literary Approaches to Theology, Race and Sexuality” with Dr John Greenaway at Manchester Metropolitan University.

The day offered a full feast of macabre and divine insights from speakers, authors and interdisciplinary academics. For me, an eye-opening highlight was the decadent choreography of Dr Argyro Tsampazi’s talk and film, The Myth of Medea, offered a transcendental moment. Arms unfurled and bodies pressed against one other, to physically reinterpret the Greek legend of the wronged and vengeful granddaughter of Helios. Tsampazi’s use of austere Orthodox monasticism and nepsis in dancer training was sublime, embodying a watchfulness that was followed by deep catharsis in dance. The dance was accompanied by guttural cry of “I. Want. You; I. Want; I”, that charted Medea’s descent from love to hate, then murder.

Writers In Conversation

I was held in a fascinated death-grip by the Writers in Conversation session (pictured above). This session included the prize-winning authors Andrew Michael Hurley, Rosie Garland, Catherine Fox and Jenn Ashworth. I relished the disgruntled hilarity of Catherine Fox’s reading of the happenings in the Diocese of Lindchester in Realms of Glory; while Andrew Michael Hurley’s Devil’s Day presented a gently sinister pastiche of rural folklore. Jenn Ashworth with her novel Fell contemplated the deep rhizomes of memory, trauma and family, gently and cleverly easing the bindweed from a derelict family house and her main character’s, troubled past. Rosie Garland was a delight for me, as a fan of Rosie’s work as a post-punk and gothic musician in The March Violets. Her book Vixen is a glorious yarn about the role of misplaced superstition and faith during the Black Death, and is an extraordinary story for our era of misinformation.

My review does not really begin to encompass the plethora of fascinating speakers, from Lucy Talbot’s clever consideration of cemetery sagas and spiritualism in “The Goose is Loose; Awakening the Spirit at Crossbones Graveyard: Myth, Mystery, and Gendering Space”, to Steven Curtis’s macabre musings on martyrdom. I am already keenly anticipating a resurrection of Death and The Sacred next year.

For more of Dr Becky Alexis-Martin her book "Disarming Doomsday: The Human Impact of Nuclear Weapons since Hiroshima" is out on May 2019 on Pluto Press.

Photographs with thanks to Helen Darby