It started at a Jubilee lunch. I was giving out leaflets for a neighbourhood festival and got into conversation about death and dying (as one does!). I had written quite a lot about music and dying and it turned out they were organising a festival of dead. And so it began – three weeks of workshops, creative workshops, story-telling and discussions. Discussions in the planning centred around rooting the frippery of Hallowe’en into ecocreativity and the ancestors and awareness of our present situation. The event was going to be a procession from the lake on Tooting Common to a pavilion where a ritual was to take place with a sculpture, storytelling and general revelling.

They asked me if I would like to lead the ritual. I was so excited and immediately said yes. Here was a common spirituality – a chance to be what the Anglican priest once was – the person who led the rituals on behalf of the community as a whole. Having said it, I realised the complexity of the ritual. How did one create a ritual for a gathering of people of no faith, some faith and a variety of faiths – of none of which I would be aware? I had already suggested that the remembering of the ancestors should be done by spreading large cloths on the grass onto which people could place objects for remembering. It was already suggested that we should give out rosemary twigs and rose petals on the way and the big banners of the procession were to be laid down. It would be in front of the sculpture. The repertoire of the jazz band was already decided and that this part in the ritual would be accompanied by a solo saxophone.

I had already decided on the opening and closing – the four directions ritual – and then I had to set about writing the rest which took a great deal of thought and reflection on several conversations with the organisers. It needed to be a common spirituality which would take place on the common ground of Tooting Common. For nine years, I had done an event called Space for Peace in Winchester Cathedral. A newly appointed dean stated that only Trinitarian prayers could be said or sung in a Christian space. I was so glad that this ritual would be not in a space owned by a religion but on common ground. It somehow felt right but we would be at the mercy of the weather.

In my own church All Saints Tooting, in the three weeks before, I did Conversing with death with Poppy the local ethical undertaker. The event was well-attended and we divided the conversation into three parts – grieving, the ritual and where do we think they go? Poppy and I talked together for ten minutes and then opened up the discussion to the audience. We included a little singing. The discussion was profound and included a variety of faith and atheistic positions. People shared their handling of grief and good and bad rituals they had experienced.

It helped me to prepare for the ritual. There were many other events; we went to the pavilion and worked out the arrangement of the sculpture and the placing of the ritual.

I located the compass points which was helped by the weather vane on the top of the pavilion.

The last preparation was two nights before the event (which was to take place late afternoon and early evening on Oct 30th) when all the created objects were there: banners and umbrellas with slogans, wheels and poles with ribbons and animals attached so that could be swirled in the procession.

There was much rehearsal of the articulated skeleton and how it could be moved and made to dance.

A pole was atached to my mobility scooter making it suitaby festive. The procession was to be carnivalesque. All was rehearsed the day before.

The day dawned wet and windy but by the evening it was clearer. I constructed a costume I considered appropriate:

The sculpture was being constructed carefully.

At night it was lit dramatically.

It included representations of extinct animals.

I had introduced the concept of the as-yet-unborn. In the sculpture this was represented by eggs – some closed, some open, some opening:

The procession was led by a jazz band.

The banners looked impressive in the night sky.

In the procession were a stilt walker and a fire eater who did performances at the pavilion.

We had planned for about 250 people but 700 people had turned up – many in elaborate and carefully thought-out costumes. It was multigenerational with babies, toddlers, elders and people of a variety of traditions and ethnicities. The lighting was effective but the sound system did not. The people gathered around the sculpture and the cloths. They repeated the first seven lines after me and then I went on with my prepared speech.

  • Peace to the north and the herbivores and the earth
  • Peace to the East and the flying ones and the air.
  • Peace to the South and the carnivores and the fire
  • Peace to the West and the swimming ones and the water
  • Peace above
  • Peace below
  • Peace to the cosmos

The Day of the Dead, Hallowe’en, All Hallows Eve, All Saints and All Souls, Samhain – call this time what you will –

  • leaves changing,
  • the greening of the earth,
  • creation is in process
  • a wheel is continuously turning,
  • the earth and the spit of the Divine come together in both human and other than human worlds 

At this time of the year when we descend into the darkest moment, many cultures look deeper into themselves and their ways of living and dying. It is a time of remembering in its most profound sense – examining our present situation – and seeing how we can re-member it – put it together in a new way before we begin a New Year.

It is a time when the veil between the worlds is thin – a time when we feel close to our ancestors and can both celebrate, forgive or grieve over them and their legacy. We are shaped by our personal and cultural past and we can review and reflect on it in our own living and dying – which are inextricably bound together.

Around us, the leaves are turning red and yellow, and descending into the earth to bring new life to the roots. A creative power runs through our dying and our living – through all the earth and cosmic beings including us as human beings – a wheel is turning; dying and rebirthing are intertwined. This enables us to look forward to the as-yet-unborn. Our decisions today will shape their lives. How will this colour what we are doing today?

The ancestors and the as-yet-unborn are present with us today so that we can reflect on what we wish to do with our wild and precious lives – in relation to our beautiful community gathered here (human and other-than-human), our own individual story, our relationship with the other-than-human world and the greening spirit that flows throughout the cosmos.

There will now be a time of reflection on all of this, by gently coming forward and placing carefully and mindfully any objects we have with us on these beautiful cloths and scattering the rosemary or petals we have been given; we can think about our past, our present and the future of every part of the cosmos. Perhaps we can ask ourselves: “How shall I live, what shall I do with my precious time here?”   

  • Peace to the north and the herbivores and the earth
  • Peace to the West and the swimming ones and the water
  • Peace to the South and the carnivores and the fire
  • Peace to the East and the flying ones and the air.
  • Peace above
  • Peace below
  • Peace to the cosmos

The night before I had finished a song. I had tried to get the Kontakion (which had been used at the Queen’s funeral) sung during the laying of the objects. The original text was too Christian:

Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more;
neither sighing but life everlasting.
Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of man:
and we are mortal formed from the dust of the earth,

and unto earth shall we return:
for so thou didst ordain,
when thou created me saying:
“Dust thou art and to dust thou shall return.”


I rewrote the words but still they wanted the solo saxophone. I had in other contexts met resistance to things from Christianity in this newly developing forest of spiritualities. However, I took the outline of the tune and some of the words I had written to create a new song.


  1. All is connected in life and in death;

For all is made and shaped out of the earth

And unto the earth shall all return;

For this is the pattern of life

Alleluya (x4) or la la la

2. Water and soil and fire and air,

From these we come and to these we’ll return;

Pulsating life flows through heaven and earth.

Together we celebrate living and dying

Alleluya (x4) or la la

On the day I used la, la not Alleluya (which I did use when I sang it in church. I was so glad that something of the ancient ritual remained contained in the surviving tune rather than the words. Some of an older spirituality survived in this new religionless or religion-full spirituality

Festival of the Dead – June Boyce-Tillman