Why we need death rituals

June Boyce Tillman drumming | Tooting Festival of the Dead

Five minute read

Tooting Festival of the Dead is now in its second year. The programme is packed with vibrant, community events — artistic, spiritual and those harder to categorise. It starts on Wednesday 25 October and ends on Sunday 29 October.

We took this opportunity to talk to local priest, professor and musician June Boyce-Tillman about her involvement in the festival and why we all need rituals around death and dying.

View the full festival programme here.

I am an Anglican priest, but I’m interested in the interface between the church and that growing raft of people who call themselves spiritual but not religious. People aren’t necessarily going to religion to think about death, dying, the ancestors, rituals or grieving. But they are still interested in addressing these issues. If you don’t know where to go, the Festival of the Dead is a place where you can start.

Death and dying is, in a sense, the prohibited topic for our current culture. We deny death, even though it is one of the things which makes us distinctively human. All human beings are going to have to deal with death, whether their own, someone close to them or the death of a significant figure.

When I was growing up, you talked about death and dying because there was more of it about, with the legacy of the war, where so many people lost relations. In the generation before that, death and dying was an everyday experience. People would bear large numbers of children and at least a third of them would die. It was more likely that the rituals of death and dying would be carried out at home.

One of the exciting things following that conversation with Poppy [at the Festival of the Dead 2022] was that long afterwards someone stopped me in the street to say thank you. She said, ‘My friends and I knew we had to talk about death and dying, but we didn’t know how to do it. Thank you for showing with Poppy how we might talk about it’.

This year, for the festival, I’m going to do a sunrise liturgy, using a wonderful Chinese wind gong with a beautiful sound. Sunrise is a magical time. The sun rising and setting is the pattern of life. It’s remarkable that the sun rises every day, it’s crucial to our survival. Yet, like death and dying, we rarely take any notice of it. I think that at least once or twice a year we ought to. By being outside and by using the common, we’re using a common ground for a common spirituality.

We are also having an All Souls supper, when people bring food which reminds us of someone who has died. Traditionally, we read out the list of the dead in church on 2 November, All Souls Day. People don’t realise that these traditions exist. All I am doing for the Festival of the Dead is taking some of the things you would do in church and moving them back outside.

To cry at a funeral and around the death of someone is natural. Expressed like that, surrounded by people who acknowledge that you’re sad and support you, then grief becomes a phase which helps you come to grips with the loss of someone. If you don’t do that, like with so many unexpressed emotions, it stays inside and can be harmful.

The Egyptians thought it was song that carried the soul over. That’s where you get the notion of singing round the bedside. People often don’t die because they can’t relax. Whereas, if you’ve got singing around you, you can relax. Music eases the soul over from living to dying, and it also helps with the grieving.

Birth and dying are very similar. In birth, you have to accommodate a new person in your life. In dying someone’s left and you have to find a way to manage without that person. Traditionally, there were six weeks where you didn’t do anything except get to grips with these changes. I remember in my childhood, after a death, you wore a black armband, the curtains were closed, people came round with food, and — just like with birth — nobody expected you to do anything.

I recently took a funeral for a very traditional Christian, with holy water, incense and readings from the King James Bible, because that’s what she would have expected. Before that, I took a funeral for a young mother, whose family wanted a spiritual, but not religious, funeral. We rewrote the whole ceremony using ‘Everlasting Love’ instead of ‘God’ to reflect their beliefs. I found it very beautiful.

I usually bring some rosemary in a basket to a funeral, so that everyone can pick up a piece and put it on the coffin. I give people a chance to be part of the ritual, because when death happens in hospitals, many people don’t have that chance to say farewell.

I used to work at a university. If a student’s relative died while they were away from home, I would suggest that each night they allowed quarter of an hour to look at a picture of that person, to remember them and to cry. This gave a place for their grieving if they were too far away to visit the grave.

I think visiting someone at the undertakers and being able to have a conversation with them, even after they have died, is important. Unresolved grief can come from the things you wish you’d said. Poppy is wonderful because she is open about these things. Some funeral directors wouldn’t be.

In my experience with people who have lost someone, quite often six weeks or so after the death, they see or feel the person in some form. Usually the person says is, it’s okay, you don’t need to worry about me any more. That’s nothing to be frightened of! It seems to me that’s part of grieving. It’s normal, but it’s not talked about at all.

The Church has been so busy creating heaven that we’ve often lost touch with the reality that we all go into the earth. Nothing in the universe goes to nothing. We all become a bit of soil or a bit of a tree. We’ve got everlasting life whether we like it or not.

I don’t think that rituals are important because of a particular belief system. I think they are important because they acknowledge what we, as human beings, need to accommodate the movement from birth to death with integrity.

Read our interview with festival organisers Christy and Alison.

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