When I was 5 years old, my father left us and set up home with a wealthy, erratic, glamorous Mexican woman. His Karmic payback was that whilst he left our mother a single parent of two, he, within a decade, was a single parent of three. Hence, I have half-siblings who are glamorous and fairly posh Mexicans.
I first went to Mexico in the 80s, to stay with our dad and my half-siblings. And was, like many many visitors struck by their Day of the Dead tradition. I was in my twenties then and the idea that you could decorate, cook for and party with your dead, felt really exciting. There was also an exhibition around this time, at the V&A, about death rituals in Victorian times, with gorgeous mourning jewellery made from the hair of the dead loved-one and funeral invites decorated by skeletons that had fascinated me.
When I came to suffer my first death, that of my Granny, a decade later, the imagery that surrounded her funeral and remembrance was totally different. It was a brief ceremony led by a preacher who had not known our Gran. It was stark, in a pale-wood coloured way rather than Goth Black, an MDF funeral. This was because my extended family are not just very poor, but also has an incredible mix of faiths within it. Collectively we are Atheist, Catholic, C of E, Pagan and Jehovah’s Witness and we totally couldn’t agree on how to have the funeral.
My parents were both from Lancashire, which had strong, rural traditions around Hallowe’en – some of which were just ‘traditions’ – whatever that meant, and some of which were church based All Saints or All Hallows Eve things. Things we did as children at Hallowe’en included apple bobbing, toffee making, lighting candles and telling ghost stories.
Psychologist, Darian Leader, argues that the huge death toll of the First World War robbed Britain of its mourning traditions. Unable to take the time with each individual loss, mass memorials and a trimmed down public mourning period became necessary and with another world war in the next 15 years, out of which came a forward looking spirit, in which the dead had no place, they were lost – and so were we, when it came to handling death. That – and the fact that we literally do not handle our own dead anymore, some men come and take them away and do all the laying out, washing etc. duties that we would have once done ourselves.
I have thought about death and our relationship with it a lot over time. When asked that great bucket list question – I’ve always said that I just want one achievement before I die and that is to come to terms with mortality. Yes – a bit intense, I know. But – it is all that matters – that you live as best you can, draw good breath and then, when the time comes, are not scared.
I have attended many Samhain ceremonies on 31st October, Druid ceremonies largely, in damp and rotting woods on the outskirts of London. In these ceremonies we wait for the great hag – the Cailleach to come from beyond the (now very thin) veils, bringing our dead with her to speak with us. On the other side of the world, my half-sister is setting out her altar for Day of the Dead. And on that altar, for the last few years, is a picture of our Dad, who died three years ago this autumn.
We will explore these different ideas of commemoration and a few others as well. We will look at the myths, ceremonies and some poems and then write some of our own. We will start with the modern festival of Hallowe’en and finish in Mexico with a day of the dead ceremony – please bring a photo of anyone you would like to commemorate – and as we draw towards darkness we will eat Pan de Muerto and drink cheap Tequila and maybe even laugh a bit, with our ancestors!!
From Hallowe’en to the Day of the Dead – explore the poetry and imagery from these traditions and create your own in Anna’s new workshop, Visiting the Dead. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.