‘Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?’ (Terry Pratchett, Going Postal)
We don’t like talking about death in this country. Perhaps we think it’s catching? Bereaved people often say how hard it is for them when they want to talk about the person they have lost, but everyone else tries to change the subject, telling them ‘not to dwell’, to ‘move on’. In Mexico the Day of the Dead is an annual celebration dedicated to remembering family and friends who have died; in August Japanese people across the world observe Obon, a festival honouring ones ancestors through sombre – and less sombre – reflection, whilst for Nepalese people Gaijarta or the Festival of the Cows is a light-hearted celebration of death involving the leading of cows – one for each of the recently deceased – through town centres. But although Roman Catholic and some Anglican churches in the UK mark All Souls Day (on 2nd November) by commemorating the dead and praying for their souls, for most people here the day passes unnoticed and thoughts of departed loved ones are expected to be kept strictly to oneself.
The Gaelic festival of Samhain marked the end of harvest and the start of the winter, and was seen as a ‘liminal time’ when spirits could move more easily into this world and the souls of the dead were thought to revisit their homes. To Absent Friends, a people’s festival of storytelling and remembrance, was held for the first time last November and will take place again next month. It seeks to reinvoke some of the customs of Samhain and All Souls Day, to create a Scottish version of the Day of the Dead and give people licence to talk about their memories of those who have died. It is, say the organisers,
‘a chance for us all to share and to listen, without discomfort or embarrassment… a chance to revive old traditions and create new ones…to raise a toast to absent friends.’
Events are being organised by people throughout Scotland – this is very much a hands-on festival, and you are encouraged to think up your own event, big or small, celebratory, reflective or both. The To Absent Friends website has lots of ideas, from organising a labyrinth walk to running a cafe of reminiscence (Lovecrumbs and the Just Festival hosted a very successful one last year), inviting extended family to the pub to chat about grandparents, starting a To Absent Friends wall in your office or staff room, or hosting a Samhain Supper (recipes available!) You might prefer to hold your own, private, moment – perhaps to visit a grave, go for a walk or cook something that reminds you of someone you miss.
Some of the events already scheduled for Edinburgh are Dogstone, an interactive storytelling adventure, in which four year old Heather leaves her memories of her Daddy and Dundee and moves to Edinburgh to live with her Granny and Grandad; an organ concert by John Kitchen at the Usher Hall; a candlelit brass band concert at St John’s Church; We Remember Them Well with Citadel Arts at Leith Dockers Club, and Gone But Not Forgotten, a night of storytelling and open mic at the Old Blind Poet with Alec Beattie and Max Scratchmann. Talking of pubs, To Absent Friends has even produced a range of beer mats designed to steer conversations round to the subject of celebrating and remembering the lives of dead loved ones – you or your local can buy 125 mixed designs for £19.50.
You can add a tribute to someone on the To Absent Friends website here – there are lots to read already – and there’s also a special page for football clubs to remember great club stalwarts who have died, be it a player, a manager, a fan, a groundskeeper, a programme seller or even the person behind the club bar. And if you have a special tune that reminds you of someone, why not submit it to the Remembrance Playlist? It already features such luminaries as Nancy Sinatra, Elvis – and Bingo the dog…
‘Remembrance is acknowledging that a life was lived’ (Nina Sankovitch).
To Absent Friends takes place across Scotland 1-7 November 2015.