Tooting Festival of the Dead

Festival of the Dead Parade, 30 October, Tooting Common - brightly coloured skull on black background

Three minute read

In October 2022, Tooting celebrated its first ever Festival of the Dead. Local artists and long-standing friends, Christy Billings and Alison Royce, came up with the idea, but this is a project that involves the whole community.

Find out more about Tooting Festival of the Dead

“The idea started because I was thinking about getting old,” explains Alison. “My son had left home, I’m in my sixties, I had a lot of questions. You always think, I’ve got time to think about that later, but maybe you don’t! I might not have so much time now, so what am I going to do with it?”

While Alison was reflecting on mortality on a personal level, Christy was thinking about death on a larger scale.

“I'm an active member of the local Extinction Rebellion (XR) group,” she says. “With the pandemic, war, and climate breakdown, there’s a lot of anxiety around. We need to think seriously about what we are going to do in the future.”

Alison agrees. “We thought, if this is really the end, what can we celebrate? How do we want to live the rest of our time on this planet? What is precious about our lives?”

A festival shaped by stories

Getting the tone of the festival right has been very important.

Christy says, “We didn’t want to put on a bunch of triggering, traumatising events. We’re not equipped for that. Instead, we wanted to use stories to help people access the discussion.”

Alison who, as a storyteller, has developed and shaped three stories which underpin the festival, explains more. “If something is difficult to talk about, a story gives you a shared reference point if you all know the story. With a story, you can decide how close or far away you want to come to the topic.”

“We didn’t know how people would react to the idea of the festival,” admits Christy. “But the vast majority of people I’ve spoken to have said it’s a wonderful idea, that we don’t talk about death enough, and that the festival sounds like so much fun.

"In the publicity, we’ve been deliberately cheerful and accessible. We didn’t want it to be ‘Hallowe’en-y’ or dependent on religion. This festival is about life, not the after-life.”

Brightly coloured fliers advertised a range of events taking place around Tooting throughout October. At Poppy’s, we were delighted to take part in a public conversation on grief and ritual, in All Saints Church at the start of the festival.

What happens at Tooting Festival of the Dead?

There were half-term craft workshops to create parade costumes, flags, banners, masks and lanterns. These were led by artist Julie Norburn from Art4Space, assisted by Gemma and Jeni from MeetandMakeSpaces and independent local artists Jackie Dredge, Fiona Adamson and Eileen Egerton, as well as craftivists from the Woodfield Pavilion.

There was also a film screening in Lambeth Cemetery hosted by Friends of Streatham Cemetery; a panel discussion on climate change organised by Transition Town Tooting; a Death Café at the Woodfield Pavilion and much more.

All of these events led up to a creative and colourful ‘Day of the Dead’ parade on Tooting Common on Sunday 30 October, with art, storytelling and live music from Mr Wilson’s Second Liners. There was also a short time of reflection at its heart.

Alison explains, “We want to create a moment in which people reflect, look at the artwork in the field and, in that communal setting, can think about loss and about the beauty of life. This festival is all about collaboration. We started it, but now it feels like it’s becoming the community’s.

“That’s how community art works — you have the idea, but you don’t know how it will develop. It’s a social creation. You provide the trigger, but it’s not yours, it’s a communal making of meaning.”

Read about the 2023 Tooting Festival of the Dead

Read more blogs from Poppy’s — find out why we don’t use euphemisms to talk about death and why we talk about death with local groups.

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