Death and Dying in Glastonbury

Glastonbury, the ‘Isle of the Dead’, shows the country how to embrace death while celebrating life. This year sees the launch of a ‘Festival of Death and Dying’, alongside the town’s traditional Samhain celebrations.

Glastonbury has many names and many strands to its mythology, one of the most enduring legends surrounding this small Somerset town claims that it is ‘The Isle of the Dead’, with Glastonbury Tor being the entrance to Annwfn (or Avalon), the Celtic Otherworld and the Palace of Gwyn ap Nudd, the primary Otherworld God. The Tor was later dedicated to St Michael, a statue on the church tower atop the hill shows the saint weighing the souls of the dead.

John Michell refers to Glastonbury, resting place of saints, as “island of the blessed dead, gateway to the spirit realm”. About Dod Lane,  which leads up and over Chalice Hill, following the same line as the Abbey’s Lady Chapel, High Altar and St Benedicts Church he says “Dod Lane… is a form of Dead Man’s Lane. Its name suggests that it was part of an ancient spirit path by which the souls of the dead passed from the old temple westward to Avalon and the other world.”

In her book Glastonbury Tor: Maker of Myths Frances Howard-Gordon suggests:

“If we visualise the Tor as a dragon, symbol of the Primal Mother and the place where the ceremonies of rebirth and initiation took place, we can imagine a ritual where the participants would come face to face with the Mother, enter into her subterranean darkness, chaos and death, and be reborn and nourished again by her life-giving properties”.

Death in Glastonbury’s Present 

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the residents of this ‘The Isle of the Dead’ should have an enduring concern with, and alternative approach to, death. Some even believe that the living should not reside in the town at all. Maybe it’s due to the wide diversity of faiths practised in Glastonbury that death is generally seen as another step on a journey, rather than an end.

St John’s Church has done much to support Glastonbury’s unofficial motto of ‘Unity Through Diversity’ by hosting the funerals of several of the town’s ‘Alternative’ community. The church ministers facilitating services which acknowledged the spirituality and personalities of the departed. Pixi and Sunbird’s funerals were loud and almost riotous affairs, with much music, foot stamping and laughter, befitting their large characters. I wrote about ‘Paul the Painter’s’ funeral at St John’s in Celebrity in Glastonbury.

After Glastonbury resident Arabella Churchill‘s untimely death there was a moving service of remembrance for her in St John’s Church and a gathering of people who had known her in the Town Hall. It was generously open to all, even those like me that had only the most tenuous of links. We only met a couple of times, once when I bought a filing cabinet from her – I felt a little like I was in the Headmistress’s Office and found myself stuttering. At her wake, I flicked through a family photo album which showed the life into which she had been born. I was struck by the scale of her reinvention – from high society ‘Debutante of the Year’ in 1967, to the founder of the charity Children’s World and organiser of the Glastonbury Festival Theatre and Circus Fields. Here were the friends and colleagues that she had chosen – amazing circus performers, comedians, sword swallowers and magicians, putting on a show in tribute to her. They clearly loved and admired her for who she had chosen to be. In her later life she had embraced Tibetan Buddhism through the teachings of Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.

Glastonbury is home not only to midwives but also ‘End of Life Doulas’. The Martinsey Isle Trust  are based here, and aim to protect sacred sites in and around Glastonbury, they hope to “provide a ‘poustinia’ and place of spiritual rest, regeneration and succour for the dying, the newly dead and their loved ones”.

“Death is psychologically as important as birth, and like it, is an integral part of life.”

Carl Jung

Several Death Cafe’s have taken place in Glastonbury, Death Cafe’s are a worldwide initiative, bringing people together “to gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death. Their aim is ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.”

Winter is Coming

A few years ago I went to a Samhain storytelling event at the (now sadly closed) Iron Age Village reconstruction at the Peat Moors centre on the Somerset Levels. Seven-foot tall, bearded, cloaked, potter and archaeologist Eddie Daughton addressed the chilly throng. The dusk and the mists of Avalon settled around us, as we anticipated the warmth, light and spectacle of the burning of the Wicker Man, the finale of the event. Something Eddie said struck me forcefully, the gist of it was “as we enter the Winter, the season of cold and dark, know that some of you won’t make it through”. We were only ‘playing’ at being Iron Age peasants for an afternoon. We are ‘civilised’ now, we have escaped the privations of life in a stilt house on a marsh, surviving on whatever we had managed to store and preserve over the warmer months, and yet death still comes. A chill ran down my spine as I looked around, wondering who might be missing from next year’s gathering.  Death is less expected now, which makes it all the more shocking, yet the very mention of death is thought almost to invite it.

Samhain 2017 Glastonbury. Photo copyright Vicki Steward
Revellers dressed up for the Samhain Procession

In most parts of the UK Halloween is celebrated –  in the cheap and tawdry, black and orange, sweet and sticky style that we have adopted from our American cousins. Halloween has come to be associated with the fear of witches, but it’s difficult to be scared of magic practitioners in Glastonbury when you commonly find yourself next to one in the supermarket queue. Here, we celebrate the Celtic festival of Samhain, at this tipping point in the year, when the veil between the worlds is thin. We collectively acknowledge death and remember those we who have departed to the Otherworld in our Samhain procession through the town, through music and song and by setting up spaces of remembrance.

“For a society to be healthy, people must significantly mark the milestones in life through ceremony and ritual. 

 Carl Jung

Glastonbury’s Festival of Death and Dying

Curator of the forthcoming ‘Death and Dying Festival’ in the town, Henrietta, says:

“It’s time we talked about death.

Over my life, through my beloveds and my work, it has seemed to me that the agony of losing someone you love too often has nowhere to go. I envy the Mexicans and their gathering of friends and family around the graves of the dead and the lighting of candles, sharing of memories and allowance for sadness and tears. I have seen how when grief has nowhere to go and cannot be shared it leaves a terrible burden.

How much does the fear of death create this isolation? Death has become a taboo subject and yet every single one of us will face the deaths of those we love and ourselves. Once, sexuality and mental health were taboo, but this has been successfully challenged by people getting together for change. The Festival of Death and Dying at Glastonbury is just that, people getting together in the hope of change, and what better place to do it than in Glastonbury, which is as ever, ahead of the curve?

Our hope is to offer a gentle and beautiful experience that will helpful and uplifting for the everyone whatever their beliefs, age or stage of life. This festival is a pilot, a big toe in the water to discover how we can make death and dying less scary and maybe even discover its gifts. We’re calling it a ‘gentle revolution for a death-friendly society’ and where better to start that revolution than right here in Glastonbury?”

Death & Dying Festival – Event Details

A groundbreaking (free) festival exploring death and dying will take place at St.John’s Church on the High Street in Glastonbury from Friday 2nd to Sunday 4th November to coincide with this traditional time of the year for remembering the dead and reflecting on death. It is open to those of all faiths or none.  

Friday evening will see performances by Maya Love (of popular local band Dragonsfly) and the Singing For Joy Choir.

Maya Love of Dragonsfly

Local 23-year-old DJ Celine DiJon will open the event on Saturday with a DJ set on the theme of ‘Tones, drones and ambience – the soundscape of love and loss’.

Headlining Saturday night is a concert of Gorecki ‘Sorrowful Songs’ described by local conductor Charles Hazlewood as ‘an astonishing meditation on loss and transcendence’ with the British Paraorchestra and friends and the globally acclaimed singer Charlotte Church. Charlotte has recently travelled to Georgia to collaborate on a new track with Maspindzelo, the polyphonic choir of Terjola.  You can hear more on Radio 4 here.

Charles Hazlewood’s Paraorchestra
Charlotte Church

A ‘passage of remembrance’ designed to offer people quiet time to cherish loved ones who have died (including pets) has been designed especially for this purpose and will be open for all 3 days. The Church will be lit by international light artist Bruce Munro and sound installations will create a very special atmosphere.

I feel really positive about this project. I’m really pleased to be supporting something local and which is so important to all of us. I think it’s going to do a huge amount of good, especially for the bereaved. The ‘bouquets of light’ I’ve designed for St.John’s church (the venue) is intended to be uplifting and playful in keeping with the idea of remembering and celebrating the lives of those we have loved and who have died. My intention was to design something relatively simple that could be replicated in another venue, if as we hope, the idea of a Festival of Death and Dying at this time of year spreads to other places around the country.’ Bruce Munro

Bruce Munro’s ‘Field of Light’ installation

St.Margaret’s Hospice will be providing a stall on ‘everything you need to know about death and dying in Somerset’ for the duration of the festival. ‘Listeners’ experienced in bereavement will be stewarding the event and the sharing of grief is encouraged. Death café/grave talk forums will take place in the afternoons and real coffee and real cakes will be served all weekend in the café. Names of the dead will be collected throughout the weekend and read out at the Church’s annual “Service of Light’ which closes the festival on Sunday.

The Festival runs from Friday 2nd 12-8.30pm, Saturday 3rd from 11-9pm and Sunday 4th from 12pm-5pm. Full programme of events listed can be found in St.John’s Church and at NO TICKETS REQUIRED. The whole event is FREE. You can come for 5 minutes or stay all day.

If you have someone, or perhaps a pet, you would like to remember please bring a copy of a photo to put up on the wall of remembrance, leave a message on a remembering tree and light a candle.

Events this Samhain in Glastonbury

Why not make your own day of the dead on Saturday 3rd November Glastonbury style? Enjoy the passage of remembrance in the morning to the sounds of DJ Celine DiJon in St.John’s Church, participate in death cafe in the afternoon or join the Glastonbury Dragons to celebrate the ancestors and usher in the winter as they march up the Tor. Spend the evening there around the fire drumming or return to the High Street for Charlotte Church’s performance of Gorecki’s transcendentally beautiful ‘sorrowful songs’?

This is Glastonbury, where we do have a proper day of the dead, and there is truly is something for everyone.

Tuesday October 30th – Samhain Community Celebration featuring the Crow Morris with the Glastonbury Border Morris Dancers at the Assembly Rooms. Entry by magic hat.

Wednesday October 31st – Lords of the Wildwood are putting on an evening of story telling at the White Spring, with a special appearance from Glastonbury’s very own Crow  Morris dancing inside the spring. There will be sweets for trick or treaters (including vegan, free from options) AND a pumpkin carving competition with prize. Bring your pumpkins

November 1st Fabulous Furry Folk’s All Souls themed Singaround Session hosted by Nathan and Dora at the Assembly Rooms. Please bring songs of death, resurrection and remembrance to share. There will be a shrine for honouring the departed – all are welcome to bring photos or memorabilia.

Saturday November 3rd – Samhain Wild Hunt 2018 hosted by the Glastonbury Dragons. “Come and join us as we once again greet Gwyn Ap Nudd, our Winter King as he travels with the Red and White Dragons to the base of Glastonbury Tor to usher in the coming winter. Celebrations will kick off around 2:30pm in the centre of town with Morris Dancing and the Glastonbury Dragon Drummers, as well as other entertainment before we process up the High Street and on to the Fairfield at the base of the Tor.  There we shall say farewell to Gwythyr ap Greidal, the reigning Summer King and celebrate as Gwyn is crowned before holding a moment of silence and honour for those who have come before”.

For photos and videos of last year’s Samhain Wild Hunt see my blog post Celebrating Samhain in Glastonbury with the Wild Hunt.

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5 thoughts on “Death and Dying in Glastonbury”

  1. How marvellous – and possibly your best post yet, Vicki. Hoping to follow the Dragons this year (and also return)! And Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” is wonderful; agonisingly exquisite.

  2. Thanks for this, loved reading it and am looking forward to dipping in over the weekend. So glad we’ve got this new festival, it’s right and proper. I remember when my brother died and there wasn’t a place to go with the grief of it, it was Samhain and there was nothing like this happening. I sat outside the white spring, with revellers all around me, and longed for a space to be open with the weight of that grief. Now I’ll be able to have his name added to the list for the ‘Service of Light, take his picture to the Tree of Remembrance, light a candle and leave a message. Many years on from the tragic event, but it’s wonderful to see it’s finally happening. Here of all places, as it should be.

  3. Absolutely loving all of your write ups Vicki. Even as locals there’s so much we’d miss if it wasn’t for your input and sparking our interests. Great stuff. If people want to expound their energy and join any future dance/drumming/ honouring the dead, the Crow Morris, that’s performed each year only at Samhain, they would be made very welcome in the run up & practices with Daniel DLB & the Glastonbury Morris group that meet every Monday throughout the year.


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