Funnily enough, when I shared information about the Brighton Death Festival on my Facebook page and asked who fancied coming along with me, I didn’t exactly receive a deluge of yes pleases. A few people were interested, but the main response was the one that I often get when I talk about being a funeral celebrant or about Death Cafes etc: bewilderment and an attitude of ‘why on earth would you want to do that?’
Although attitudes are slowly changing, there is still a general reluctance to think or talk about death. It’s been a huge taboo for such a long time, maybe because nobody likes to think about the finality of their own lives or maybe because of painful memories from loved ones dying. Whatever the reasons, the result is that not many people know much about what happens to us after we die and not many people really want to think about it either. This makes for a difficult conversations when a loved one dies – the subject has to be discussed and there is not a lot of awareness about the options that are available post-death.
The whole point of the Brighton Death Festival was to address issues such as these. Having not procured anybody to come along with me, I arrived at the Level in Brighton on my own, worried I wouldn’t find the beginning of the procession.
I needn’t have feared because there was no mistaking it – a large wooden bier carrying a huge decorated coffin, and a smaller willow coffin were being danced around by intriguing and beautiful performers dressed in Day of the Dead costumes. I was most definitely in the right place.
I realised happily that I did already know a few people – some that I had met at the Art of Ritual conference in December, and some who I ‘knew’ online but had not met in real life, such as the lovely Alex Long of Soulful Ceremonies.
I became one of four bearers of the wicker coffin, and we processed up to the Extra Mural Cemetery on Lewes Road, by which time our arms felt significantly longer – even though the coffin was empty it was very heavy!
Once at the cemetery, it was difficult to know what to do or look at first. There were lots of different stalls arranged around the graveyard displaying crafts such as stonecarving, coffin painting and willow weaving, as well as a reflection tent, alternative hearses and other things to discover.
Not long after we had arrived, there was a call for people to go to the first tour of Woodvale crematorium next door. We walked up the long driveway and were met by Harry, who showed us both the chapels and then what happened behind the scenes.
I had never before seen the cremation process or understood it in much detail. It really was quite humbling and quite fascinating all at the same time to witness it, as well as to see the respect, care and attention that Harry and the rest of the staff there put into their work. I truly think that the antidote to fear around the idea of cremation is to see what actually happens in a tour such as this.
Many of us on the tour had, at one time or another, believed that once the curtain is closed then the coffin is immediately cremated in situ. We discussed how traumatic that had seemed at the time, and that we’d wished we’d known then what we know now.
After the crematorium tour, we made our way back through the beautiful woodland graveyard in time to grab a quick cuppa and assemble in the Extra Mural Chapel to watch the show ‘Crème de la Crem’. This piece, performed by Peter Faulkner Murphy and Belinda Chapman, used music, video, and live acting to show the stories of two deaths. Their characters, Michael and Sandra, had very different experiences from their deaths to their cremations, and the telling of these experiences was enlightening, thought-provoking, moving and amusing, sometimes all at once. Peter and Belinda have been performing and making ceremony for many years together, so we were in expert, knowledgeable hands.
We came out of the performance, stunned and blinking into the sunlight, to be led by a drum to a memorial ceremony taking place under a nearby tree. We stood in a circle and were led by Interfaith Minister Rebecca D’Arcy through a beautiful and meditative ritual to remember our loved ones who had died. As well as being an emotional experience, it was also incredibly grounding, thanks to the visualisation that Rebecca took us through. The ceremony ended with a haunting, soaring song sung by Margarida Espirito Santo, followed by the release of six snow-white doves from my good friends at Lambert’s White Dove Release.
After the memorial ceremony, I had the time to wander around some of the stalls and chat to people. Unfortunately, I had missed the stone carver, but I had a good chat with Roger of Weaverman Baskets, who was making a willow coffin and told me about how some families come and weave a coffin for their loved one together under his tutelage, and how this is an opportunity for creative grief. I admired the ‘Bon Voyage’ Citroen van hearse and the beautiful painted cardboard coffin that Joanna Martin had brought to showcase her bespoke designs.
I also got the opportunity to talk briefly to the wonderful Tora from The Modern Funeral and Cara from Arka Original Funerals, both of whom had been very busy all day as organisers of this unforgettable event. Both of these women are on a heart-led mission to educate people about choices around death and to provide enlightened, personal funerals with great integrity. Plus, it turns out that Tora makes a mean (coffin shaped) gingerbread too!
The Brighton Death Festival was a colourful, inspiring and surprisingly uplifting day. Thanks to all of those who worked so hard to make it happen.