Over the weekend of June 21st – 23rd, Discover DeCrypt staged the city’s first ever Festival of Death and Life. We had music, poetry, talks, a creative art display and crafts for the family, as well as lots of coffee and home-made cake. Those that came were full of enthusiasm.
It wasn’t easy to attract people. Some were very reluctant at first, fearful that a weekend with talks about such things as grief, loss and funerals would be miserable – only to find that as well as thought-provoking moments, there was a lot of laughter. There is something liberating in facing up to the inescapable realities of life. As one of the younger speakers expressed it: “Why are we so surprised when people die? Death is normal – it happens to all of us – but when somebody dies everyone acts like something’s gone horribly wrong!”
The weekend began with a great evening of music and poetry, both light-hearted and serious. Gloucester Community Choir sang a variety of songs including Thank You for the Music [Abba] and You Raise me Up [Westlife], before Seb and Vicky Field sang the beautiful Danny Boy. The audience joined in with a rousing chorus of Jerusalem, and in between local poet Johnny Precious read a selection of the kind of poetry people might choose for their funerals. It was all held together with the wit and warmth of BBC Radio Gloucestershire’s Richard Atkins. It made us laugh, even while we had tears in our eyes.
On Saturday we began with an inspiring talk by Sandra Millar, Head of Life Events for the Church of England. With humour and knowledge, Sandra highlighted the ways in which death and grief are being talked about in popular media, and how expectations of funerals are changing rapidly. That was followed by a profound and useful talk on grief from Dulcie James of Cirencester. As a professional bereavement counsellor, Dulcie helped us think about the different ways loss touches our lives, and the helpful and less helpful ways we respond.
Alongside all this, families enjoyed creative crafts in the Old Schoolroom. Children made angels and memory boxes, whilst others picked up the GraveTalk questions scattered across the tables – prompting thoughtful conversations helped along by coffee and cake. Throughout the church, Artshape had installed local works that explored the themes in different ways.
In the afternoon, Lucy Moore, of Messy Church, talked about the importance of helping children and families to talk about serious issues, including death and loss. She showed how creativity and craft might make a space where these things can be addressed naturally and helpfully. Then Emma Curtis, a spiritual celebrant, shared more insights about grief and also about contemporary funerals, including the unforgettable ice-cream funeral. More laughter! We were then led in a beautiful session of gentle singing by Judith Silver of Companion Voices, whose work involves singing with the dying. Exploring how it feels both to sing intentionally for somebody else, and to be sung to, opened up a new way of connecting with each other through breath and sound, which was very moving. Finally, we were led into a lively discussion by the input of local writer Erica Buist, who is researching death festivals of the world for her forthcoming book. Erica shared her own story of grief, and made us all laugh out loud even as she made us think about the oddness of a contemporary culture that is so disconnected from death.
On Sunday morning, we had a beautiful Requiem Eucharist, with gorgeous music from Byrd’s Mass a 4 performed by Gaudeamus, and a chance to light candles and remember those we see no longer. Then the formal part of the weekend was wrapped up with an opportunity for everyone to discover just how easy it can be to talk about the big questions of life and death, once you overcome that initial reluctance. It’s a conversation that can run and run. We all have something to say when we find ourselves in the right space.
It was a great weekend – so much to enjoy, so much to think about.
The team will now meet and start planning the next Festival of Death and Life – a small start with deep roots which has all the potential to grow into something very special for locals and beyond.
If you think your church could do something like this – then just contact us for some ideas and advice:
We’d say, don’t be afraid of the topic. Be prepared for some frowns and raised eyebrows. Do more publicity than you can ever imagine. Start small and think big. Invite a range of speakers, and include different genres, especially popular music.
It’s good to talk – let’s be part of the conversation.
Head of Life Events, Church of England
Trustee, Discover DeCrypt
Jess Gordon, Community, Arts and Events Manager, Discover DeCrypt