Write Here, Write Now: The Lonely Funeral Project by Gabrielle Benna

In this episode of Write Here, Write Now: A Vocal Podcast, Gabrielle Benna and host Erica Wagner discuss how to search for the roots of optimism even during the most difficult periods of life.

By Write Here, Write Now: A Vocal PodcastPublished about a year ago 13 min read

From Write Here, Write Now: A Vocal Podcast, The Lonely Funeral Project by Gabrielle Benna.

Gabrielle Benna explores an unusual way to give meaning to the lives of those who die alone. After the reading, Benna and host Erica Wagner discuss how to search for the roots of optimism even during the most difficult periods of life.

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GABRIELLE BENNA: We do think of birth obviously as a celebration of life, but I don't think we see death in the same way.

ERICA: This is Write Here, Write Now, a podcast brought to you by Vocal, an online platform for creators of all kinds and all levels of experience. It’s a place to post, to read, to be inspired. I’m your host, Erica Wagner.

This season, we’ll hear eight essays, all posted to Vocal by independent creators. Afterwards, we get to hear from the creators themselves- about what inspired them, what they’re working on, and what keeps them going. If you have any questions that linger after the episode, head to vocal dot media to leave a comment for the authors, right on their essay. Who knows- you might be inspired to write something yourself.

Here’s Write Here, Write Now.

ERICA: Funerals are a rare subject for conversation, and almost never would those conversations fall into the category of optimistic. But that is precisely the perspective we have for you today. Without further ado, here’s “The Lonely Funeral Project” by Gabrielle Benna.

ERICA: That was “The Lonely Funeral Project” by Gabrielle Benna. When Gabrielle and I discussed her piece, she impressed upon me the importance of optimism in a world of realists, and why she feels the Lonely Funeral Project falls into that category.

ERICA: Wonderful. Before we start talking about your piece, I want to go back in time a little bit so you can tell me a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up?

GABRIELLE BENNA: I grew up in Ramsgate, Kent, initially. That's in England. But I'm also half English and half Tunisian. So for a good portion of my teenage years, I also grew up in [inaudible] Tunisia.

ERICA: Wow, what an interesting contrast between Ramsgate and Tunisia, I would think.

GABRIELLE BENNA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. The countries are actually very similar in the way that they're run. Tunisia has a lot nicer weather than England. I think that I also learned a lot when I lived there as well, particularly about just life, the way things work and who I really want to be when I grow up. Gave me a lot of time to think.

ERICA: Tell me how you first started writing. Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?

GABRIELLE BENNA: I do. I do. I was quite young. Well, I always loved... I have a love for reading, and I got that from my mom. When I was young, maybe about four years old, actually I remember sneaking four sheets of paper out of the printer and taking them up to my room and making a short story. It was your classic short story about a monster and a village. These village of children had to fight to overcome this monster and make things nice for everybody again, and create a happy ending. But I've really, really just always been fascinated with writing from there. Even when I would watch TV shows and things like that, I would write my own versions of them too, for what I would like to see happen. Maybe when I was about 13 or 14, that sort of age. It's just always been something that's been so therapeutic to me. I think also a lot of fun because you get to take a trip into this world that you've created yourself, and there's all of these possibilities in front of you. I really think writing can help people as well. It certainly helped me a lot, so I think that's why I continue to do it. That's what I found anyway.

ERICA: That's fascinating. It sounds like you had a real passion for it from an extremely young age. I have to say writing short stories at four is something that very much impresses me. I'm interested though that you say that it's therapeutic for you. Tell me a little bit more about that.

GABRIELLE BENNA: Well, yeah. Well, I was quite a shy child growing up and believe it or not, ironically, it was quite difficult for me to speak to people. But when I was writing, I would be in my own zone, and I found that it was the only place where I would be able to think clearly and to articulate my thoughts in the way that I wanted to articulate them. That sort of continued all the way through to... Well, let's say college age, which in England is 16 to 18, straight after high school. When I would speak to people, because I'd have to, because it was an acting course that I was on, I would actually imagine a keyboard or a pen in front of me. That would help me a lot to articulate in the moment.

I would say particularly with the articles that I've been writing on Vocal Media. I didn't just see the writing helping other people, the articles that I wrote really was almost like a diary for me. Almost as a way of checking in with myself and learning things about myself and potentially... Well, potentially doing some good for other people who are reading it as well.

ERICA: I was going to say that leads nicely, I think into my next question. Because you write under the moniker of Outrageous Optimism. Where does that moniker come from? It sounds like it's linked to this notion of wanting to give other people and yourself a sense of hope.

GABRIELLE BENNA: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Well, it was during lockdown, when I started writing with Vocal Media. I had felt for a long time, and this feeling was particularly exacerbated over the lockdown when there was lots of negative news in the press, that there was so much negativity and there was so much that was potentially wrong with the world, so much to be angry for. And what I realized I was doing is I was getting very angry a lot of the time, and I was bemoaning and crying out against all of these injustices of the world, which I think is a very good thing, by the way. I think we should always talk about these things, because how else are we going to change or make things better to be constructive. But what I realized I wasn't doing is that I wasn't looking for any solutions, or anything that might make these things better.

Even if myself as an individual, couldn't say, right centuries of perhaps institutionalized corruption, for example. One person can't do that, but one person, I think, does make a big difference. Optimism is always sort of seen as something naive for a person to have a lot of the time, and because of that, people will call themselves realists. But then realism, I found always seems to go hand in hand with a pessimistic view of the world. What I wanted to do was not to ignore the negativity, but to sort of pair optimism and realism together, and to look at these things that we think could be better or things that we could improve around the world and discuss that have a conversation, whether that be political or within the media, or whether it be personal within your own mental health, things like that.

ERICA: I take it that influences the topics that you choose to write about. You keep that idea of realism along with optimism at the forefront of your mind.

GABRIELLE BENNA: I'm very careful when I write, because I think there's a difficulty that comes with writing in an optimistic way that people can think it can almost become something of toxic positivity, almost a closer of a conversation rather than an opener. I'm always very careful not to hold my research or the opinions that I have back. But then with that, I won't just... Well, I won't just leave it at that. I will then try and find the silver lining, or open up a conversation rather than close it, and potentially figure out something together with the reader.

ERICA: That's great, and we are too, looking forward to that. Tell me about this piece. When did you decide to write this piece? What was the moment? What was the thing that prompted it?

GABRIELLE BENNA: Well, again, I wrote this piece during the height of the lockdown. There was a lot of negative news. I had a lot of free time on my hands, and I was doing some research. There were particularly a lot of deaths, of course, during the Coronavirus pandemic. There were a lot of unmarked graves because the death toll was so big. And of course, with the Lonely Funeral Project, this is the whole thing, and it really struck me what these, what these artists, what these creators would do for John Does, or unmarked, unnamed bodies and things like that. People that have no relatives, is they would go specifically and they would research these people as much as they can. They would look into police reports, talk to neighbors, try to get any bit of information they could on this person. Then they would write a piece of poetry and they would get all of the efficiency that you needed, and they would hold a funeral for them. I just thought that was such a beautiful thing. Of course it had spread like wild fire, over many, many Dutch cities, and some in Belgium, particularly as well.

I thought it was very comforting to know as a person... And the artists do say that these funerals are for the living as a sense of reassurance or sense of comfort. I thought it was very comforting that no matter where you were in your life, no matter how many people know, how you passed, that there was always somebody looking out for you, and that you wouldn't just obviously slip away and that be it, basically. I thought it was just a beautiful, beautiful sentiment.

ERICA: I wonder if you'd given much thought before to death and funerals. As you say in your piece, it's something that in Western culture, anyway, we tend to keep at a distance. I'm wanting to ask you a little bit more about what drew you to this particular project, because in some ways it seems an unlikely subject.

GABRIELLE BENNA: No, absolutely. The subject of death, particularly in Western cultures, as you say, I think is very taboo still. We don't like to discuss it with each other, because then it makes us think about it, and it's not a very nice thing to think about, obviously. A lot of the work that I do, a lot of the theater work that I had created in previous years, was really researching and looking into that concept of death, and where we go and the imprints that we leave upon the planet as well. I think that I felt strongly that it was a topic that should be discussed more, that we should familiarize ourself more with, and just be open with each other about it. I think it's a topic in which when we grow older, we often, we don't know what to expect because we haven't spoken to anybody about what to expect at these different stages of our life.

I think it would be a lot less of a surprise for people if we did regularly talk about these things. I think it, ironically, might bring a sense of comfort to us. Particularly because where the time when I lived in Tunisia during my teenage years, there was the Tunisian Revolution, and I was there through that. And every day you didn't know what was going to happen. You didn't know if the country was going to go from bad to worse. To be Frank, you didn't know if you were going to... Something was going to happen and you were going to die tomorrow. So I really think I made quite a bit of peace with that then. I think since experiencing that pivotal moment in my life, experiencing that revolution that I was in I've... I've just really felt strongly that this message should be shared, because I feel that it also makes you not just comfortable, but I think it makes you live for the moment. I think it makes you make choices in your life that are more aligned to yourself and what you really want to do, instead of just performatively impressing people with the job that you get, or the way that you behave, or maybe the partner that you end up with, or things like that. I really believe that we should be making the right choices for us.

ERICA: It's always fascinated me that we pay a lot of attention to our entrance into life. A lot of attention is paid to the process of birth, but we ignore the process of death. I wonder if you yourself would be interested in participating in a project like this one.

GABRIELLE BENNA: Oh gosh. Yeah, absolutely. I think this is another thing that drew me to writing about the Lonely Funeral Foundation and the Lonely Funeral Project. I think the process, first of all, of researching and finding out about a person, and not even just the greatest things that they've done in life, but the mundane things, the tiny things that made them happy, the things they might have been working towards, maybe the things that they didn't quite get to, I find it fascinating. I would personally love to write a piece of poetry about a John Doe or something like that. And I would love to organize a funeral for them. I think it would be such a beautiful celebration of life. It's interesting you talk about birth that we concentrate on, because we do think of birth obviously as a celebration of life, but I don't think we see death in the same way. I think creating an event, a sign of respect with art and culture and things like that, I think is a fantastic celebration of that person as they were.

I think it's very important to commemorate a person's life. Even with people that aren't particularly artists, I think we, as artists tend to sometimes over-polish our work. Whereas the people who have created this movement, the Lonely Funeral Project, I find it much more raw and real and authentic. I think that's much more able, sometimes, to touch all of our lives, and to make us think of something true.

ERICA: How has researching and writing this piece shifted your perspective?

GABRIELLE BENNA: I feel personally that I'm much closer to my loved ones, and I think it's changed the way that I've related to other people. As I was writing this article, my mental health wasn't great. I felt quite isolated within myself, and isolation, ironically, can make you withdraw and less likely to talk to people or to build relationships. I've very much now become a person who jumps right in to relationships. I feel a lot lighter as a person and I take myself a lot less seriously, I think. I've begun to see the more beautiful things in life. I've begun to see everything as an experience or a lesson and a ride that I'm very pleased to be on, and that I enjoy very much.

ERICA: Gabrielle makes a convincing and compelling argument for the importance of optimism writ large, even as she toes the line between a realistic optimism and toxic positivity.

Next time on Write Here, Write Now we’ll hear an essay that lays out a roadmap to success. All you need is one thing. Tune in to hear Andy Murphy’s “The Rarest of Human Qualities (If Cultivated) Can Unlock Superhuman Potential.”

Whoever you are, whatever your story, Vocal belongs to you. If you liked the show, come be a part of where it all got started. Join me and the rest of our brilliant Creators on Vocal.media. We hope you'll join our community, where you can post, read and comment.

If you like what you hear, join us for season two of Write Here, Write Now, when we dive into stories from the Vocal plus Fiction Anthology. And of course- be sure to rate, review and subscribe to Write Here, Write Now on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Erica Wagner- thanks for listening.


Write Here, Write Now is produced by Vocal in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team: Jacob Frommer and Andrew Herwitz and the team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, Ashton Carter, Rebecca Chaisson, Carter Wogahn, and Morgane Fousse.

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Pod People transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a Pod People contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of Pod People’s programming is the audio record.


About the Creator

Write Here, Write Now: A Vocal Podcast

Sex, death, relationships, nature, families... If you like to stop, think and consider things a little differently, join host Erica Wagner as she introduces a new Vocal creator’s story each week.

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  • Jeff Jordanabout a year ago

    What a lovely conversation between both. I love these podcasts. As I'm a professional web developer at the top custom web design company in USA, Prodigy Web Studios:'https://www.prodigywebstudios.com/'. I usually listen to these podcasts between work to relax.

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