Over the last few weeks I’ve noticed an abundance of death related events popping up across my neighbourhood and on social media. As well as the usual nightclubs offering Halloween fancy dress specials, I’ve seen everything from a Day of the Dead film festival to a life-less drawing class and zombie bike ride.
Of course, my suspicion is it’s just another way for companies to cash in on a seasonal theme. However my hope is it demonstrates a return towards more enlightened times when we can be more open in talking about death because it wasn’t always such a challenging topic of conversation.
Halloween began as Samhain – the old Pagan Feast of the Dead. It was believed to be a time when the spirits of the dead could re-join the living and was an important way of remembering and celebrating the lives of those that had died. When the Christians adopted and relabelled it All Hallows Eve as the vigil pre-ceding All Saints Day and All Souls Day, it kept some of its older associations with honouring lost loved ones. In some Catholic countries like Mexico, that special association morphed again with indigenous beliefs into el dia de los muertos – the Day of the Dead.
Nowadays, we in the Western world can find it very difficult to express our grief openly. There can be a lot of pressure to accept the death and ‘let go’ of the person who has died. So what changed?
We know the Victorians observed strict codes of dress and conduct during mourning, but even these rituals gradually fell away until by the 1960’s, the subject of death had become taboo.
Since then the likes of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Colin Murray Parkes and Dame Cicely Saunders have begun the important work of understanding the reality of how we experience death and dying, and there’s been a shift again towards recognising the importance of openness in how we communicate about it.
Despite this, those conversations can still often be uncomfortable. I’ve chosen this special time of year to begin Dust2Dust, as a way of expressing my belief that greater openness is vital in helping to break down the barriers people can still face when someone dies or as they come to prepare for their own death. Barriers which can make an already painful and difficult time, even more fearful and lonely.
Through Dust2Dust and in the wider world, I’m hoping to make death a part of our everyday conversations and inspirations. I’d like to invite you to join me so that together we can try and change some of the ghoulish connotations and fearfulness it conjurs up.
Because I believe death is for life, not just for Halloween. That through greater openness and understanding, an awareness of death can lead to transformation and celebration by reminding us our existence is finite but even more precious and worth celebrating because of it – even after the pumpkins and fake cobwebs have been packed away.
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On Monday 3rd November you’ll find me at the Dying Matters Day of the Dead conference in London. Dying Matters is an umbrella coalition of organisations which aim to help people talk more openly about dying, death and bereavement and make plans for the end of life.