Every year in late October, the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform hold a ceremony to remember loved ones who have died because of drugs. Since the ceremony was first held in 1996, it is estimated that over 20,000 people have died because of drug overdoses.
The ceremony takes place in springtime in beautiful Weston Park in Canberra. The location, beside a memorial on a stone under a locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia), was chosen for the first ceremony in 1996, because of its particular associations for the family of one of the members of FFDLR, whose brother had died earlier that year.
The blossoming locus tree under which the memorial stone lies is a potent symbol for the event: an expression of hope in the midst of remembering and honouring those who have died.
Bill Bush, Chairperson of FFDLR, notes that “these avoidable deaths have ballooned out to at least 20,000 people since that first ceremony. Then, as now, opiate overdoses have been the main cause.”
“The make-up of those who have died”, Bill advises, “has changed from generally troubled young people trying to cope, pushing boundaries and risk-taking, as young people have always done, to include older Canberrans who, in desperate search for inadequately provided pain relief, have had recourse to illicit substances. There are those who in desperation to shed themselves from a dependency have taken their own life without the aid of any drugs.”
The ceremonies have brought out of the shadows the promise and worth of those who have died and enabled grieving families and friends to draw aside the curtain of shame and stigma with which an unfeeling society has shrouded their loved ones. You can read some of the addresses given over the years at https://www.ffdlr.org.au/remembrance/
Every year, a local politician speaks at the ceremony—this year it was Peter Cain, MLA for Ginnindera, who chairs the Select Committee considering the Decriminalisation Bill. In addition, a family member of someone who has died speaks—this year, Janine Haskins, whose 23 year old daughter, Brontë, was driven to believe that the only relief available to her was to take her own life. She bore witness to a tragic sequence of events leading to the death of Brontë.
This year, also, I was invited to preside over the roll call of names of people who are being remembered, and to speak as a representative of people of faith. Here’s the address that I gave.
I thank you for the invitation to share some thoughts with you this day.
I acknowledge the Traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, and I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and to those emerging within community.
I also acknowledge those who have died and who we remember today and offer my condolences to those who loved them, particularly the newly bereaved.
(We then shared in a time of silent remembrance, as people recalled their loved one they were remembering.)
Today, as we remember, we recognise that we come to this ceremony from various walks of life, with various experiences, perspectives, and understandings. Our insights about life, our understandings of life in this realm and beyond, are varied. Some of us participate in rituals and in communities that help us to make sense of our lives, and of death, when it takes place. We recognise and value that diversity in our midst today. All are welcomed into this shared moment of remembering.
I join with you today as a representative of people of faith, for whom the loss of life of a loved one is a special moment. It stands as a moment for remembering, grieving, giving thanks for a life, mourning the loss of relationship and connection. No matter what faith tradition, each religion marks such a moment with a sensitive rite of passage, as the person deceased slips away from our reality, into another reality beyond. We gather to remember, grieve, recall with thanks, and comfort one another.
In this time of remembrance today, we mark again those moments of passage for our loved ones—those we have named, and countless others not here named—who have taken that pathway into the beyond. We bring out of the shadows the names and faces, the joys and griefs, the achievements and the unfulfilled hopes, of those who have gone from us.
I join with you as a Christian minister, from a faith community that holds firmly to the conviction that, whilst death is the end of mortal life, it marks a new beginning in our relationship with God. We do not know with clarity and assurance what form that new relationship takes; but we hold with hope to the belief that this life is not the totality of our human existence.
In this time of remembrance today, each of us, in terms of our own personal commitment of faith and hope, grieves the loss of a loved one, yet affirms our hope that their reality, now, has taken them away from the grip of whatever caught them, surrounded them, and led them to the point of death. Beyond those shadows, we hold to the belief that our loved ones live in the light.
And I join with you as a member of the Uniting Church, which has a commitment to stand in support of those who have been bereaved in this situation. In recent years, the Uniting Church has developed the Fair Treatment campaign, in which we join with over 60 partner organisations, and many concerned individuals, to affirm that our policies and our laws must not stigmatise and marginalise the most disadvantaged people in our community. This is a vitally important commitment. (See https://www.fairtreatment.org)
The man who shapes the perspective of the world that I adhere to and seek to follow in my life is the man from Nazareth who sat, befriended, listened, questioned, encouraged, challenged, enriched, expanded horizons. This man from Nazareth would not validate the harsh, uncaring, depersonalising course of action that many of your loved ones have experienced as they grappled with drug dependency, suicidal ideation, or the intensified pain that came with age and disability.
By trusting in the way of the man of Nazareth, I place my faith in the positive and hopeful dimension of humanity. That man, Jesus, affirmed what the sages of old had long declared: we human beings are made in the image of God. Our very beings “radiate the glory of God”, to use the ancient scriptural terminology.
At our own creation, the breath of God was breathed into us, infusing our being with all that God is, all that God offers. Our very beings contain within them the potential to be life-affirming, world-embracing, in hope-filled living, in loving relationships, in caring compassion. Each human being therefore needs to be accorded dignity and respect, as a person bearing the mark of the divine, with the breath of the divine inspiring and enabling our very being.
In my understanding, this high view of humanity undergirds the work of the Families and Friends for Drug Law Reform. A commitment to the value of each individual human life informs the advocacy, the research, the educational work, the relational support, and this annual remembering, of this so-important organisation. We are made in the image of God. We have within us the capacity to be our very best.
Let us continue to hope, to love, to work, to care; to advocate, to persuade, and to rejoice, in this work.
In 1999, the Rev. Gregor Henderson spoke at this event. He said then:
It is not right to treat drug users as criminals, as outcasts, as people who are beneath compassion and love.
It is not right that people die from drug dependency, in alleyways or parks, in living rooms or hospital casualty wards.
It is not right that people die from unintentional overdoses, from highly toxic mixtures of drugs, from shared needles.
It is not right that people die when new approaches and treatments are available but governments lack the courage to permit them.
It is not right that society has been unable to find better ways of caring for drug users and moving them towards rehabilitation.
It is not right that some, the real criminals, profit from the importation and sale of illicit drugs.
It is not right that people, especially young people, are exploited mercilessly by the Mr and Mrs Bigs of the drug trade.
It is not right that parents of young drug users have great difficulty in finding help for their sons and daughters who are using drugs and for themselves as they want desperately to help them.
It is not right that parents are forced to break the law by allowing their drug-using offspring to inject safely at home in preference to throwing them out on the streets.
Surely it is time for a much bigger dose of compassion in relation to illicit drugs.