John Fox in Engineers of the Imagination:
‘We are seeking a culture which may be less materially based but where more people will actively participate and gain the power to celebrate moments that are wonderful and significant. This may be building own houses, naming our children, burying our dead, announcing partnerships, marking anniversaries, creating new spaces for secular ceremonies and producing whatever drama, stories, songs, rituals, ceremonies, pageant and jokes that relevant to new values and new iconography.’
After gaining a world-wide acclaim for creating celebratory community events, the company focused their attention of creating vernacular art. They applied their theatrical expertise, knowledge of aesthetics, drama, music and stage management to creating good ceremonial practice. In consultation with individuals and their family and friends, they helped people design a personal ceremony for their particular life event.
The company felt that ceremonies for funerals, weddings and baptisms were often ugly, unconnected with the participants, expensive and exploitative. However, given some time and thought, these events could also be fun, life enhancing celebrations and a magnet for drawing together family, friends and community. They could help people to connect with a deeper spiritual level and create a memory bank of mutual experience.
The ceremonies were not simply restricted to births, deaths and marriages but could also include retirement, leaving work, changing jobs, birthdays, moving house, divorcing, and any other considered declaration or affirmation of ones position witnessed by friends and family. These ceremonies could be simple or complex, and include, architecture, performance poetry, music, food, or other symbols or stories that are part of the shared value structure of those involved.
The first book that was released by John and Sue was The Dead Good Funerals Book. This book encourages individual control and choice over funeral rites and showed what was possible once people have been freed from nostalgic, out-dated traditions. The following book was the Dead Good Book of Naming and Welcoming Ceremonies.
As well as the two published manuals, Sue Gill, and long-time collaborator Gilly Adams, now run a twice-yearly course in Rites of Passage. The intensive four day course offers an opportunity to explore how ceremony and celebration feature in our lives, in order to empower others to be bolder in honouring significant beginnings and endings and to facilitate that process for others in an articulate and imaginative way.
The Naming of Dan Fox
Northern Echo, July 1969 (From the Dead Good Book of Naming and Baby Welcoming Ceremonies)
‘A Chinese New Year story seemed a good-starting point. It told of a poor man who lived outside a city and earned is living through selling fireworks. At New Year, unlike his neighbours who spent their money on food, he brought a statue of a beautiful girl. He took it home and honoured it with food. In time it came to life, and she began to prepare his food and care for him. They lived together and had a child. But an inescapable longing overcame her to return to her former state, and he was left with the child who in her turn honoured the statue with flowers… We decided to make the story into a simple mime play, with a narrator, and specially composed music and songs … As the performance was planned for outside, the actors and musicians rehearsed and played music all over the dale – particularly in the chosen spot, a sheltered clearing dotted with foxgloves, bracken, wild roses and butterflies. Everything depended on the weather, and the day was perfect. About 60 people arrived, including several other babies to be included in the ceremony. We sat on a grassy slope and waited. Fire-crackers went off on the hill facing us and singing was heard from the wood on our left as the band approached. The poor man, in oatmeal robe, white wooden mask and enormous canvas shoes, appeared near the straw bales (indicating his house) and the slow dreamlike play began. The movement was closer to dance, gestures were kept to an absolute minimum. And frozen in pauses; they looked like life-sized puppets. It took over 20 or 30 minutes, during which time the score of children who were watching were enchanted.
At the end of the play, as the father held his child triumphantly, priceless Japanese fireworks were again released on the opposite hill … The poor man began the procession to the top of the hill, and we followed with the musicians. A bonfire blazed, a red banner flapped and coloured smoke billowed up – this was to the naming. At the sound of a gong the first parent went forward, held aloft his tiny son and shouted his name into the wind.’ (Reproduced here courtesy of John Fox and Sue Gill)
See also our audio extract taken from the Unfinished Histories interview with Sue Gill and John Fox, 2013