Find The Fire On A Dark Night

Printed in Bristol Magazine

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It’s gloomy outside. Mist is loitering around the streetlights and seeping into the black pavements. Inside, the log fire is flickering warm and the surrounding low tables are festooned with tea sets. Smiles are genuine and plentiful, and the chatter in the room is lively.

We’re all strangers, and we’re here to talk about death.

This is what Death Café is for. To discuss, ponder, and share thoughts on the ethics, practicalities, logistics, beliefs, emotions, rituals, traditions, histories, memories, choices, anythings and everythings surrounding death. While there are colourful grey areas and welcomed differences in opinion, one thing is inarguable: that there’s a huge difference between talking about death and being morbid.

Bristol’s Death Café is just one small branch of a very special tree that’s growing far and wide. Started around five years ago, the premise is this: organise a neutral space for people to eat, drink, and talk about death. It’s a global, not-for-profit movement that allows people to consume, and not be consumed by mortality.

Emma Edwards, originator of Not Being Morbid – a Bristol collective focused on opening discussion around death – is also the facilitator for Bristol’s Death Café. Referring to its growing popularity, she explains: “I’ve had to start hosting it every two months instead of three…overall response has been very positive!”. Yet despite this increasing readiness to talk about death, Emma acknowledges that in our society, the hushed tones surrounding one of the only things that truly unites us are still too quiet: “That being said, I think death is still too hidden…it’s easier not to talk about death and dying when it is so hidden. Hopefully though this is changing”.

In the spirit of the fabulous Emma, to whom – like many people – death has arrived uninvited and unannounced at the party of her life and distracted some of her most beloved guests, we should embrace her positivity and pragmatism. Imagine if the whole of Bristol was a Death Café. Imagine if we could all discuss, ponder, and share thoughts on the ethics, practicalities, logistics, beliefs etc. (see above) surrounding death in Bristol together. Imagine if every cup of tea, coffee or (let’s be realistic) pint was a catalyst for discussion about what actually happens when someone shuffles off this beloved mortal coil of ours.

Tombstones and twitter feeds

There are the obvious places to start, and nowhere better than Arnos Vale cemetery, which is spectacularly full of life. Here, alongside the engraved tombstones, statues and poignant messages about lives lived and long gone, run popular exercise classes ranging from yoga to Pilates via JumpFit and lightsabre combat…of course. All of these and more are advertised on the Arnos Vale Twitter feed. Yep, the South West’s first ever crematorium is in to social media.

Arnos Vale is still a working cemetery, but it’s so much more too. Its cafe is open daily, and informative signs invite visitors to explore the beautiful grounds. There is – by all accounts – hustle and bustle. It’s also proving to be a popular location for one of the most auspicious and life affirming acts that we do: marriage. In fact, there were more weddings (29) than burials and internments (25) in 2015. As well as being a wildlife haven, it’s a focal point for our community too. And the tombstones aren’t hidden – they somehow seem to help celebrate life by reminding us of our transience. Hardly morbid.

Arnos Vale was saved from dying itself through the sheer determination of a few Bristolians. CEO Mike Coe explains: “It is a community project and aims to both remember and celebrate life…a regular schedule of events and activities take place through the year, something unique amongst cemeteries both in the UK and internationally.”

At this very special place we can see Bristol’s readiness to embrace death with the same kind of practical honesty as Death Café. In Mike’s words: “Arnos Vale is an example of something that most cities would see as a liability being turned into an asset”. At Arnos Vale, death isn’t just honoured, it walks hand in hand with the possibility of renewal and new life.

Suitable for dancing

This isn’t unique in Bristol. Right in the centre of the city, ensconced in between concrete developments and dour buildings, sits the ancient Church of St John. Built right into the old city walls it sits above a 14th century crypt, which can be entered from Nelson-Street-Of-See-No-Evil-fame. Lying peacefully in the crypt is a medieval tomb, believed to be of the one-time sheriff of Bristol Thomas Rowley and his wife. Much like Arnos Vale, this prestigious burial place is now open for hire – as a rehearsal space, for performances, for functions…it is, according to one online listing ‘suitable for dancing’.

Pain becomes paint

Ask people what they associate with Bristol and a fair few will think of graffiti. And scattered among the sculptures, tombs and carved memorandums are also countless street art homages to those who would have appreciated them the most. These tributes shape the much-loved colourscape of our city – our collective aesthetic is influenced by empathy and emotion. Stashwell stays in St Werburghs, Neil is still at The Flyer, Matt Hibert (Mibsy) is…well…everywhere. There’s more, so many more. Too many to mention, and enough to never forget.

And then there’s the Grim Reaper. The personification of death, the harbinger of doom…the cloaked cadaver…and one of the most sought after pieces of graffiti in the world. Rewind. Thanks to a certain probably-Bristolian graffiti artist, political activist, call-him-what-you-will-ist, a stencilled image of the Grim Reaper is so covetable it can be found behind glass in the M-Shed. Originally painted on the side of the Thekla, apparently in retaliation to the council removing one of his tags, the reasons Banksy used this subversive image aren’t really alllll that clear. Not a problem: the stencil of death is now a world-famous exhibit.

Sticks and stones

And this leads us nicely on to some of Bristol’s other prized possessions that pertain to the point of passing. Joining Banksy’s Grim Reaper at the M Shed is, among many other artefacts, the book of John Horwood.

Who was John Horwood? Why does he have a big old book? And what has it got to do with death? The tome appears beautiful yet not unusual – ornately decorated, it looks smooth, tactile and inviting. It’s made from John Horwood’s skin. His actual skin from his actual body. The words ‘Cutis Vera Johannis Horwood’ (‘The Actual Skin of John Horwood’) on the front make no mistake of this.

Inside are the trial notes of Mr Horwood, who was hanged on 13th April 1821 in front of crowds of onlookers. Lovelorn and desperate, he threw a stone at the object of his affections – Eliza Balsum with fatal and tragic consequences. The macabre book relaying the accidental murder, skewed trial and surgeon’s notes of his dissection remains, but Horwood was – at least partially – exonerated when his skeleton was finally buried with relatives in 2011. Oh how times have changed. The fact the book exists nods to a time when death was more prominent and visceral in the lives of Bristolians. The fact it still exists as an exhibit in the M Shed proves that Bristol is prepared to open conversation about its relationship with death.

From home itself

And nothing could prove this more than ‘death: the human experience’, Bristol Museum’s major winter exhibition for 2015-2016. Among the mourning clothes, a Death’s-head Hawkmoth and a Ghanaian fantasy coffin are curiosities from closer to home. From home itself, in fact. Bristolian funeral postcards from the early 1900s visually depict how death used to featured in our society. A Bristolian will dating back to 1600 reveals the relevance of lasting legacies. There are over 200 items exploring how Bristol and the wider world have approached, and still do approach, death and dying.

From this progressive and touching exhibition we can begin to learn how Bristol used to talk about death, as well as the dialogue that exists today. And its popularity speaks volumes: The Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2014 exhibition (usually the most popular at the museum) attracted 31,000 people throughout its entire run. ‘death: the human experience’ has reached over half that (16,500) in its first month. There were 1,600 visitors in opening weekend alone.

Since records began

Bristol’s collective conversation about death may be relatively new, but it’s thorough. Complementing the museum’s exhibition is a more locally-focused one at The Bristol Record Office. ‘Documenting Death’ scours the city’s archives, and explores how Bristol has reacted to death since, well…records began. Our memorials are diverse: the City Stadium for Bristol rugby club (now Bristol Rovers) is dedicated to players killed in First World War, statues across the city honour people from Edward VIII to Samuel Morley, and Pero’s Bridge in the centre is a necessary reminder of our links to the savage slave trade. At this exhibition we can learn that one third of Bristol’s population died of the Black Death, and we were the first major English town to be plagued by it. We can see mourning cards and funeral invoices, a mourning pin containing a lock of hair, and parched and beautiful scrawls detailing the ins and outs of death and dying over the years.

We can see again that how Bristol has considered death has changed dramatically over the years. Out of chronological context, some things seem oddly crude. The petition sent in 1773 by affluent citizens of St Michael’s Hill to move the executions that were held there doesn’t sit right now. They weren’t vexed because it was too upsetting to be that close to the violent deaths…they were complaining because it reduced the value of their properties.

 Quakers and cats

Other examples of Bristol’s relationship with death can be even more idiosyncratic. Funerals and burials usually reflect social status and wealth and with this in mind, let’s have a good old think about Redcliffe. In 1950 the Quakers donated their beloved burial ground (which they’d owned for 280 years) to the council for road widening. On the other side of the road, a gravestone for the cat at St Mary Redcliffe Church has remained untouched and in pride of place since 1927. Must have been a damn fine ratter, but still…

The Bridge

Occasionally, our attitudes towards death haven’t altered the form of the city, but the form of the city has altered our attitudes towards death. It would be remiss not to mention the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which is thought to be the second most popular suicide spot in England. There have, apparently, been over 500 suicides since the bridge opened in 1864. Some suicides are high profile, some have slipped quietly away, but all of them are tragedies. Preventative measures are being made and to an extent they’re working. Barriers along the side of the bridge were installed in December 1998. Until then, there were an average of seven suicides a year. And afterwards? Around three a year. There are also plaques advertising the telephone number of the Samaritans, and CCTV cameras have been installed. There are so many bridges and vantage points the UK. Why a suspension bridge in Clifton? A question we can’t really answer and hopefully one day we won’t have to.

Find the fire on a dark night

As Death Café proves, talking about death isn’t morbid, it’s necessary. Because death is all around us. It’s in the old gates to the city, and under a saucer in a café. It’s in the wide roads, our exhibitions and our art, and the rays of morning light falling on our streets. Death isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Bristol. So visit the next Death Café and find the fire on a dark night. Whether you want to discover advanced care directives, learn how to talk more freely with your family about what happens when you (or they) are gone, or just share your thoughts it can only be a good thing. As Emma said at the start of the last café in November: “If you laugh you laugh…if you cry, you cry”. At least you’re doing something.

Dedicated to Georgie. Whose beautiful life taught our hearts to be full and strong. You may not be here anymore, but you’re not gone.