Jean Francis, One Spirit Interfaith minister, pre-need funeral planner, author and winner of the ‘Most Significant Contribution to the Understanding of Death’ award at the Good Funerals Awards in Bournemouth 2013, is organising another series of ‘happenings’ in Horsham – her Circle of Life Festival.

Here she tells us why she started The Circle of Life Festival and about some of the events last year.

Firstly, I have to ask, what is a InterFaith Minister ?

In a multi-racial society, such as ours, there are people with widely- differing views. Interfaith ministers meet people of all faiths or none at all, creating sacred ceremonies that are inclusive, loving and harmonious. In this way we bring people together to enjoy, and above all share special moments while celebrating the many milestones of life. It is our job to be the ‘spiritual’ glue (so to speak) in our diverse and multi-cultural society.

I wanted to arrange an event in my hometown, Horsham, to support National Dying Matters Awareness week. However, even my grown- up daughter who has been brought up surrounded by end of life matters in one form or another said, “Mum you can’t say that.”. She was referring to the Dying Matters Week. Remembering that trying to engage the public with Death and Dying is almost impossible, I turned the idea on its head. We would take the work we do as ministers and facilitators to the general public but in gentle disguise, hence the Circle of Life Festival was born.

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This was obviously a good decision because synchronicity immediately took charge of events. An e-mail arrived, the phone rang, my imagination was ignited – the programme was already coming together. Later that day I met Jill Shuker, leader of Horsham Healthy Walks at a lunch party. I shared my vision of a Circle of Life Festival which she immediately recognised, so we joined forces.

A week-long series of celebratory and sacred events included a variety of highly creative ceremonies and rituals designed as much to inspire and entertain as to heal. Each event included a gentle reminder that birth, life and death are interwoven and that we can’t have one without the other. Such reminders came in different forms, sometimes by candles being lit in memory of those unable to be with us for whatever reason, or by likening the circle of life to the cycle of nature. These special occasions included ritual storytelling, celebrations for pets (both alive and diseased), blessings for children, old and divorced people as well as those who choose to rejoice in many years of marriage. Celebrations around nature featured strongly, particularly as Horsham has an acclaimed programme of healthy walks, which is now into its 15th year, and included many enthusiasts who regularly enjoy active appreciation of the Sussex countryside.

Ceremonies showcased the talents of Interfaith Ministers trained by the One Spirit Foundation: www.interfaithfoundation.org as well as a range of professional experts and celebrants. To link it with Circle of Life Festival,  I introduced each facilitator, speaking about their special talents, their location and the services they offer. I also gave a brief outline about what interfaith Ministers are, and what we do.

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The areas we covered included:-

Story telling, with a wealth of tales from around the world, each offering food for thought.

Celebrating the animals in our lives. People gathered in the sunshine with their dogs, their memories and/or their pet’s cremated remains that were scattered as we walked through the ancient and beautiful St Leonard’s Forrest.

A Croning and Crowning Ceremony. It was a very special ceremony for seven mature, wise women, who celebrated age, wisdom, fun and the beauty of inspiration and experience.

A Memorial Celebration. Interfaith Minister Anthea Ballam created this ceremony to commemorate the life of her beloved mother, a vibrant, fun loving lady, whose funeral had been a depressing and impersonal occasion.

Cheri Mugeridge, who attended, said: “I now know that there are so many choices, and that funerals and memorials do not have to be dour affairs, but more real joyful celebrations of life, tailored to suit the person who has gone and the families and friends left behind. I now look forward to planning my own send off!”

Honouring the Ancestors. Included a guided tour of the Old Denne Road Cemetery and we held a unique ceremony in the Peace Garden, which honoured our ancestors, both past, and, the yet unborn.

A Walk for Wellbeing.   A short but thoughtful amble on the Downs Link with Jill Shuker, during which a bench was dedicated in loving memory of fellow walker.

Feedback from Betty Pearce: ‘The reason I was drawn to the festival initially was Jean’s take on death and dying.  The experience was very warming and everyone was so friendly and passionate about what they do – even funerals!

Feedback from Ella Roskilly: ‘By the end of the week I felt uplifted and enthused by all I had seen and heard at The Circe of Life Festival, it has opened my eyes to other and better ways of marking the important occasions in life, especially my funeral and has really made me think!’