Commemoratio: a guerrilla happening

2 11 2009

Here are some of the promised pictures. Thanks Ben.


For someone you’ve lost.

1 11 2009

531444_daisy_in_the_sunLucky heather sir?

How do you normally respond? If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you normally refuse. There’s no such thing as a free lunch (or heather). We all know how it goes. It’s not a gift. The heather lady wants you to cross her palm with silver. None of us wants to be taken for a mug. So we politely refuse. We all have our guard up. And what’s more, we don’t like being approached by a stranger. Stranger=danger. Even for adults. So why on earth would I plan an event that involved stopping people in the main shopping street in the centre of Portsmouth and offering them a flower?

Well precisely because I wanted to break through that defensive barrier to connect with people — to connect with their spirit.

If there was one thing that came up again and again in my conversations with people late on a Friday night at the Friday Fridge, it was that sense of suppressed grief that we all carry. It was that, I think, that boiled over when Diana, Princess of Wales died. People weren’t really grieving for Diana. She was a proxy through whom they could connect with their own sense of grief. It comes up so often when you’re taking funerals. Not just in the obvious way that you’re talking to relatives about a loved one that’s just died, but also there’s invariably a personal tragedy that the deceased person carried, unspoken, for years. There’s a time after a bereavement when people accommodate our desolation; there’s a sort of permission to be demonstrably emotional. But there comes a time when grief becomes impolite, embarrassing. Especially in our culture. Because we don’t do death like we once did. I suspect that we want grief out of the way as quickly as possible as it’s a memento mori. So we push it down deep. But it’s there. Gnawing away. Inside we’re desperate for someone to just acknowledge what, no who, we’ve lost.

That’s what I think anyway. If you think differently, please share your experience or thoughts via the comments on this page.

Because I think that, I think that it is an act of compassion to acknowledge the grief of another. It connects with the deepest level of our identity and embraces our whole being, not just the ‘I’m fine’ persona we like to present.

So yesterday (because close to All Souls seemed as good a time as any), eighteen of us from around the Diocese gathered at the fountain in Commercial Road in Portsmouth. I described the event as a guerrilla happening. I called it ‘Commemoratio’ from the latin for All Souls’ Day: Commemoratio omnium Fidelium Defunctorum (Commemoration of the faithful departed). As for the previous guerrilla happening I pulled together, I sent invitations by email, text, facebook and twitter and just waited to see who would come.

We gave away 300 single stem white gerberas. It was a simple act. As we offered them to people, we said: ‘this is for someone you’ve lost.’

Lots of people — perhaps even a majority — politely declined. But a substantial number also received the gift in the spirit in which it was given. They seemed genuinely moved. And let’s not overplay the refusals. Within a quarter of an hour all the flowers were gone.

There was no agenda. We weren’t trying to get people along to something else or preach or sell them anything. The gift was free. It was a genuine gift.

We had attached small cards. They looked like this:

tag mock-up

And I think (from what they said to me) that those who took part experienced it as a moment of privilege. We all had powerful moments of human connection.

What right did I have to interrupt people’s Saturday lunchtime? None. What right did I have to attempt to make people reconnect with their grief?None. Who am I to decide that people’s carefully constructed protection around their grief should be penetrated? No-one. I hope you can tell, dear reader, that I have thought carefully about whether it was truly kind or fair to do this. In the end I thought it was kinder to acknowledge people and communicate a recognition of their loss and its validity. And I think the experience bears that out. I don’t think it threatened the defences of those who declined the gift. And the expression and frequently the words of those who did accept the gift communicated that they were grateful to have their grief and the one for whom they grieve recognised.

I hope to post some pictures here in the next few days.