In a society where few things remain taboo, death is one subject that stubbornly stays off limits. Traditional etiquette may dictate that one should never talk politics and religion in polite company, but it is dropping the ‘d’ word that is the real conversation killer. Try talking about your dead grandfather at the pub and your companions will soon be off to the bar or the fruit machine.
It is perfectly understandable that people to react that way – bereavement is a horrific human experience and a reminder of one’s own mortality – but avoidance of the topic doesn’t make it any easier to deal with when the inevitable happens. And a glance at other cultures around the world shows the ‘strong and silent’ approach to death is not the only approach, or indeed a particularly healthy one. Think of the Mexican Day of the Dead or the traditional Irish wake as examples where greater openness about death helps bring people together .
That is the spirit that lies behind To Absent Friends, a new festival of storytelling and remembrance which is taking place throughout Scotland this November. It is part of the Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief campaign (run by the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care), which works to create more openness about death and bereavement, so that those who are bereaved feel more able to talk about it, and those on the outside feel more able to support them.
This isn’t a festival in the traditional sense, for people just to come along and watch (although there are a number of shows and exhibitions to enjoy). This is a festival for people to get involved in whatever way they feel able.
For example, everyone is being invited to enter Essence of a Memory, a photo competition dedicated to absent friends. Photographers and writers of all ages can submit a photograph and up to fifty words which sum up their lost loved ones. The competition runs until 21st October and winners will see their work exhibited at the Scottish Parliament. Former Edinburgh Makar, Ron Butlin, and award-winning photographer Colin Gray will be judging.
Colin Gray’s own work, A Journey With His Parents Through Love, Life and Death (in association with Luminate) also forms part of To Absent Friends. It documents his parents’ lives in photographs through thirty years and can be seen at North Edinburgh Arts Centre until the end of October. Meanwhile, on 29 October, at Cottiers Theatre, Glasgow, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Quartet will be dedicating their concert to absent friends and Edinburgh Brass Band will be doing likewise at St. John’s Church, Edinburgh on 1 November.
Storytelling is an important part of remembrance and on 1 November, poet Margot Henderson will be sharing her To Absent Friends stories at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Storytelling will also be part of a series of events taking place at Penicuik YMCA throughout To Absent Friends week.
But the most important part of To Absent Friends is for people to be able to tell their own stories. Leave a message on the Wall of Remembrance, chat over coffee at the Death Cafe of Remembrance, tweet your memories using #toabsentfriends, or organise your own quiet tribute. Whatever you choose to do, To Absent Friends is an opportunity to shed the cultural reticence and share memories of those that are no longer with us.