Guest blogger Mark Hazelwood, CEO of the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care, introduces a new festival.
I’ve some great memories of my friend Helen, who I knew for 30 years and who died earlier this year. I remember her giggle, her passion for improving the probation service and the time we did an overnight bus trip from Mysore to Bangalore.
All of us, except the very young, have memories of people who have died and who remain important to us. For many people there comes a time when the relationships we have with those who have died outnumber those we have with the living.
People often have their own private ways of remembering people who have died, but in general in Scottish culture, public acknowledgement of the importance of the relationships we have with the dead is very limited. The exception is Remembrance Day, but of course most people don’t die as a result of military service.
In Mexico every year in November they mark El Dia Los Muertos – Mexican day of the dead. These two days are dedicated to remembering family and friends who have died. Graves are tidied and decorated, special meals are prepared, and people remember, respect and celebrate those who have died.
Historically Scotland used to have equivalent traditions. In pre-Christian times we had Samhain, a November festival during which places were laid at the meal table, to remember and honour dead ancestors. There are elements of Samhain in the subsequent Christian festivals of All Souls and All Saints, as well as in Halloween. But with the decline of organized religion and the explosion of hyper-commercialised trick or treating something important and valuable has surely been lost.
Our current culture of silence contributes to the isolation which many people who are recently bereaved say they experience. It is part of a wider silence about death, which can be a barrier to planning and preparing for the inevitable and a barrier to supporting each other.
So if are old ways of doing things are in decline, but there is still a deep human need to remember the dead, what is to be done?
A new festival will take place in Scotland this year from 1st -7th November – a people’s festival of storytelling and remembrance, called To Absent Friends. The festival will be an opportunity for people to remember dead loved ones and tell stories about people who’ve died. It will provide an excuse to build upon the emergent creativity which can already be witnessed in phenomena such as sponsored events in memory of dead loved ones, Facebook and twitter tributes when someone dies, and the growth in personalised and individualised funerals.
To Absent Friends is unprescriptive and completely open to individual interpretation. It is not an awareness week. It is not a fundraiser. It is not corporately owned. It will happen among friends, families and communities – people can mark the occasion – or not – in whatever way works for them. Participation might be private and individual, for example lighting a candle at home. It may be private but collective, for example attending a themed concert and thinking private memories. It may be individual and public, for example posting on an online wall of remembrance or it might be public and collective, for example cooking together with friends and family what was granny’s favourite recipe.
The signs are that the festival has struck a chord and we are aware of numerous and varied events being enthusiastically planned. For example, on the Isle of Lewis, over 60s groups are getting together to do artwork, sing songs, eat traditional food and tell stories of people in the community who have died over the years. Residents, family and staff at the Peacock Nursing home in Livingston are creating a Remembrance Tree.
Glasgow University is holding a “remembrance café” for their student nurses. A 20 foot Memorial Wall will be fixed on the famous town railings of the broadest town square in Scotland in Wigtown and there will be free tea and cake afterwards.
As well as grass roots activities such as these the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care has teamed up with arts organisations to deliver some bigger events which will help to raise the national profile of the festival. The Royal Scottish National Orchestra are playing a concert in Glasgow. In Edinburgh there will be a lunchtime organ recital in the Usher Hall.
Together with the Luminate Festival To Absent Friends brings an exhibition by photographer Colin Gray. And story teller Margot Henderson will be telling tales of Absent Friends as part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival.
It is not too late to be in right at the start of something! Please have a look round the To Absent Friends website. Have a look at the events, at the ideas and suggestions. See if anything strikes a chord. Tell us your own ideas. www.toabsentfriends.org.uk