Mexico-inspired festival helping Scots celebrate

Mexico's Day of the Dead is a celebration of life and death
Mexico's Day of the Dead is a celebration of life and death
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Day of the Dead has lessons for life, says Rebecca Patterson

There’s something mesmerising about the exotic celebration of life and death that is Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Candlelit graveyards, brightly coloured skirts and extravagant floral displays whisk us away from our Northern European gloom to an alluring world where beauty can be found even in sorrow.

But while most of us can enjoy the vivid imagery, there are some aspects of Mexican traditions that perhaps most of us in Scotland don’t quite “get”. The deathly face make-up, the grinning skeletons carved into life-like poses, and the tradition of giving sugar skulls to children… Set within their own cultural context, these traditions are no doubt full of meaning and importance. However, in a culture where skeletons are generally seen only in horror films, many of these traditions can just seem a bit odd.

Yet there’s something inherently life-affirming about acknowledging loss amidst a nationwide celebration of life and love. If we like the sentiment, but struggle with some of the traditions, what could a Scottish Mexican Day of the Dead possibly look like? Earlier this month Scotland did hold its own version of the Mexican Day of the Dead, and there wasn’t a sugar skull in sight.

Communities on the Isle of Lewis gathered to share music, food and local stories of love, loss and daring deeds; a 20ft public memorial wall was erected in Wigtown town square; a care home trip to Portobello Beach celebrated the life of a recently deceased resident and friend; Penicuik YMCA hosted storytelling and drama for children affected by loss. An array of public events also took place – from a short film on the big screen during a Scotland rugby international at Murrayfield, to a remembrance concert by the RSNO quartet – across Scotland as people remembered, shared stories, celebrated and reminisced about dead loved ones.

All of this and more took place as part of To Absent Friends, a people’s festival of storytelling and remembrance, from 1-7 November. The festival was initiated by Good Life, Good Death, Good Grief, an alliance of organisations and individuals working together to raise public awareness of ways of dealing with death, dying and bereavement.

The Children’s Hospice Association Scotland (CHAS) is one of several organisations who are at the forefront of supporting the new festival. CHAS provides hospice services in Scotland for babies, children and young people who have life-shortening conditions for which there is no known cure.

Jon Heggie, director of fundraising and communication at CHAS, shares some of his experiences of working with parents who have experienced the death of a child: “Parents whose child has died say it can be difficult to talk about their child for fear of the uncomfortable reaction they’ll get – it takes on a whole new significance.

“Being able to share fond memories as part of the To Absent Friends festival is an important step towards building a culture where we can all support each other through the difficult times that come with death, dying and bereavement.”

It is not by accident that To Absent Friends falls just after Halloween – what is now largely a confectionery-fest for children was once a time when people reflected on mortality and those loved and lost. To Absent Friends is a response to an emerging desire in Scotland to reignite lost traditions. From writing a social media tribute when a friend dies to undertaking a sponsored event in memory of a family member, many of us want to remember and memorialise people who have died.

The new festival has taken off with surprising ease and been met with real enthusiasm in all kinds of quarters. Perhaps we’re not quite ready to meet a host of flamboyantly dressed Mexican Calavera Catrinas dancing down Princes Street, but it seems many of us would appreciate the excuse once a year to raise a toast to absent friends.

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Rebecca Patterson is policy & communications manager, Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care