Recently I was honoured to speak at the Observer columnist Katharine Whitehorn’s Memorial.
We celebrated Kath at her swashbuckling, convention-bashing best and remembered just how much she shifted attitudes toward stereotypes of women and motherhood. The occasion also reconnected me – as all good memorials do - with a part of myself that normally remains buried beneath the clutter and stuff of daily life. I went home feeling a lot happier, reunited with the confident, ambitious, idealistic person I used to be, especially after a long, encouraging, morale-boosting lunch with Kath.
Kath’s memorial is one of the many reasons I’ve become such an ardent supporter of a new initiative for a Celebration Day.
The idea is to have one day a year, on the Sunday after the Summer Solstice, when we remember people we’ve lost – not in a sombre and not necessarily in a religious way, but in a spirit of joy. As people have become enthused by the idea, they have posted short films about how they’re going to rejoice. Richard E Grant, Prue Leith and Anya Hindmarch were among the first to do so. Prue will be celebrating Jamie, her younger brother and best friend, with whom she used to go fishing. She’s doing this by rereading his book, Ironing John, about being a house husband.
When Prue wrote about Celebration Day in The Times, reactions were mixed. Some believe remembering loved ones is a private affair and there are plenty of occasions in the church calendar like All Souls Day on which to reflect. Others saw it as an empty, unnecessary celebrity gesture. I disagree. As oldies, we all inevitably become accustomed to death, but the point of Celebration Day is not just for oldies. It’s to remind everyone that we are all the happier and more robust for keeping fond memories alive within us.
Even if we’re too young to have immediate family or close friends who have died, it’s worth stopping to think about past generations and where we’ve come from.
Indeed, The Day, a daily magazine for schools, has launched a competition for schoolchildren nationwide to ask a family member about the person they would celebrate and then write an account of why and how they’ll be doing that. Winning entries will be read out by actors Harriet Walter and Lennie James.
Julia Samuel, bereavement counsellor, popular podcaster and best-selling author of Grief Works, is another great supporter, reminding us that we are, after all, the sum of our parts. As a society, we would be more resilient and probably happier to spend one day a year rejoicing in those long - and recently - gone figures who have shaped our lives.
On our weekly podcast Break Out Culture, I recently interviewed Dr. Neil Wilkin, curator of the magnificent Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum. He spoke eloquently of how Stonehenge remains a resonant national symbol of our collective ancestry. Celebration Day is a non-physical embodiment of the same, presenting us all with an opportunity to pause and think about ourselves in the round and remember how even those who died a long time ago continue to shape us and our future.
So, on Sunday 26th June, I will be remembering Vicky Rigby, my great friend and godmother to my daughter. She died last year. I’ll be raising several toasts to her over a lunch with my daughters who loved her as I did. My daughters adored her for never condescending to them and her generosity was both extraordinary and exemplary – a quality that eludes the stingy. Stopping to think about Vicky always reminds me to think and act a bit more selflessly and kindly for a moment, and for that alone Celebration Day will always be worthwhile.