Halloween; a God-given gift
Every year at about the end of September I begin to see my more conservative Christian friend start to get a bit twitchy. Not because of the start of the new term, or the impending sight of mince pies in Aldi (personally I wish they sold them year-round) but because Halloween is approaching.
Lots of churches hold events called a ‘Light Party’ usually to give the good Christian children something to stop them moaning that their parents won’t let them go out trick or treating with their mates. I have been and continue to be quite vocally annoyed by Light Parties. There is an absolute gift in Halloween and by shunning thoughts, discussions and engagements about such natural things like skeletons, bats and pumpkins, we really do ourselves and our communities a bit of a disservice.
Beyond the commercialisation of Halloween which has grown at an incredible rate in recent years and shows no sign of stopping, there is an open invitation for us to be in our communities and talk about one of the last taboos, death and dying.
Now I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but the point of Halloween is that it is All Hallows Eve, the day before All Saints Day when churches traditionally commemorate, remember and recognise those that have died. As a death and dying educator, I am very, very aware of just how illiterate we are when it comes to talking about death and dying.
I run a small community organisation called ‘mortaliTEA’ and I consider it a huge privilege that I get to talk to people and myth-bust some of the misinformation that exists around death and dying. Did you know, for example, that there are only three laws in the UK that need to be applied when it comes to death? People assume there are a lot more but there aren’t, we live in one of the freest countries in Europe when it comes to what we do with our dead.
The top three topics of conversation I have when out and about doing talks in communities and churches are: Funeral poverty, Eco Funerals and Will Writing (along with Power of Attorneys).
Funeral poverty is a growing trend. In the latest ‘Cost of Dying’ report from SunLife, the average cost of a funeral in the UK is now over £9,000. Of course that doesn’t mean that all funerals cost 9 grand, there will be some that have cost a lot less, but others that have cost a lot more. It also shows a growth in people using credit cards or loans to pay for funerals.
Funeral poverty is something that I can see is only going to get worse as more people drive themselves into debt to give their loved ones the funeral that society tells them they should have. But as I said before there are only 3 laws that govern what you have to do in the UK. There are many ways to be more creative with funerals and think about how we might conduct them so as not to drive people into debt to achieve something that isn’t necessary.
Eco funerals is a huge area of conversation and there are some really exciting developments in disposition technology that is going to become available in the UK very soon. Beyond the traditional burial and cremation, we’ve already seen the introduction of green burial and direct cremation, both of which reduce the impact on the environment. But behold a new dawn is on the horizon, Alkaline Hydrolysis is almost here.
You may have heard about this in the media as it was announced in July that Co-op Funeralcare have driven the project through and will be starting in the next few months to offer this as an alternative to fire cremation, alkaline hydrolysis is water cremation. This uses only about one seventh of the energy needed for a fire cremation, the body is dissolved in a water and lye solution and what is left is bone, exactly the same as after a traditional cremation and with far less harm to the planet. It’s been legal in the UK for ages, but has always been blocked by water company’s, however Northumbrian Water have given the go ahead (finally!) and now it’s all systems go.
There is loads more I could write about new disposition tech, but I imagine you’d get bored quite quickly!
The third thing I talk a lot about with folks is Wills writing. You maybe thinking that you need to do a Will for the first time or that you need to update an existing Will. Do it! Don’t wait. It’s a cheeky little bit of life-admin that you could tick off in a weekend.
There maybe some considerations that we in the queer community need to be aware of. Many people write wills using relationships e.g. I leave to my sons… if you have a beneficiary who is trans or non binary then that may come back to bite them, when the Will doesn’t recognise their identity.
Equally, we need to make sure that same-sex partners are specifically named and that relationships are spelled out clearly. It only takes a poorly written (although probably well-meaning) Will to be contested and you could create a right storm especially if you died ‘intestate’, which means without a Will at all.
I can’t go into everything here of course. Back in the summer I wrote and published a resource guide called ‘Dying Queer’. It goes into different aspects of death and dying and how that pertains to LGBTIQ+ identities. If you’re and ally it’s worth reading too as there's is lots of information in there that you’ll find helpful too. Honestly this is not just a plug for that resource, but if it’s something you think you’ll find helpful, you can find it on the website www.mortalitea.me down in the resource hub.
So perhaps, in order for us to change the Christian narrative around Halloween and for it to become a much more death-positive, helpful time of year for folks, we need to change and educate ourselves. Maybe this Halloween is a chance for you to do that, make friends with your own mortality, I guarantee that speaking about death is not going to bring it on more quickly, if that was the case I would have died years ago! Take this time for Halloween 2023 to learn just one thing, do one thing differently or challenge yourself to be open to conversations about the last remaining taboo (it really shouldn’t be taboo!)
At countless funerals up and down the country Psalm 23 is recited, read and sung. I believe that words of that Psalm have a much wider reach that we think. If we read it quite narrowly it looks like the Psalmist is talking about periods of bereavement and grief, however I think ‘the valley of the shadow of death’ includes everything I’ve talked about here. We can walk through that valley because our faith in God has given us the courage and the comfort to do so.
So join me on the other side folks, forget about the ‘Light Party’ at your local church, let’s go carve pumpkins and talk about how cool skeletons are (and they really are)!
Lisa-Jayne Lewis, Trustee