Instead of the usual wedding fair, a church in Berkeley, California is having a funeral fair this year. Scheduled for the Saturday after Halloween, it focuses on "green funerals" -- this is Berkeley, after all -- and it is preceded by the two-month "Fond Farewell Speaker Series," weekly lectures on various aspects of death whose presenters include an estate planner, a shroudmaker, an archeologist, and a professor who studies roadside shrines. The fair is intended to be a fun family event, with such activities as coffin decorating, paper-flower making, and a booth where participants can write their own obituaries.
"I grew up in Ireland, where cemeteries are very much part of Irish life," the festival's organizer Liz O'Connell-Gates told me in an interview. "I'll never forget bicycling at night on the Aran Islands and seeing the moonlight hitting the Celtic crosses in the graveyard. The Irish have a tradition of honoring the dead in grand style, and the dead and the living are very intertwined in Ireland, unlike here in America. I've lived here for thirty years and I've noticed that death and honoring the ancestors is really absent from the landscape. Americans deal with grief in different ways."
Seeking participants for the speaker series and the November 7 Green Funeral Fair at Berkeley's Grace North Church, O'Connell-Gates started by Googling "shroud maker San Francisco." She also found a natural casketmaker, a stonecarver, requiem singers, a Day of the Dead expert, a harpist, and several authors including Zoe FitzGerald Carter, whose book Imperfect Endings deals with assisted suicide.
"The goal is to bring the topic of death and dying into the open so that we can better understand our natural life cycle, confront our mortality, and learn how to handle the practicalities of putting our affairs in order so others may bid us a fond and fitting farewell," O'Connell-Gates explains. She hopes attendees will "learn about the psychological rewards of natural home-based funerals and the environmental pluses of green burials."
A writer with her own public-relations firm, she was hestitant at first to take on this project "because funerals involve tragedy and I feared that this would depress me. On the contrary -- it turned into an art project. And I learned that we can take care of our own dead. We don't have to give our dead over to strangers." Preparing them for burial, she says, "can be our final act of love."
At the November 7 fair, Final Footprint Eco-Caskets will display cardboard caskets which participants are free to paint on and adorn. "Casket-decorating," says O'Connell-Gates, "can be very therapeutic.
"And we're giving away a prize for the best funeral hat."