This all brings me back to one of the best guys we could have on our side as a community (or not even!) of people who use drugs. Theo Van Dam, once a strident, unflinching, innovative, brilliant user activist in Amsterdam (a real honest to God fore-runner of the whole user movement) -who now, at late 50’s/early 60’s or so, has put aside his fighting talk, his incredible persuasive manner who could sell an ice to an Inuit (as they say!) has re-invented himself and naturally as a humans evolution, he now speaks at funerals and remembrance days.
He stands with the family and friends and says all the powerful, and beautiful words of remembrance that no one else dares to say. He acknowledges their place in the community, even if the community was ‘one of the guys on that park bench, you know, the one with his ol’ dog close at his side and his little woven bag that doubled as a pillow yet held everything in the world that was necessary and loved. Theo would talk about the whole person -the time this or that happened, talk warmly about the generous, kind, stubborn yet loyal person that would always have time for a chat for anyone who passed by the park bench. It didn’t even matter whether Theo knew the person lying prostrate in front of everyone -or not. Whether he admired and adored them, or wasn’t on very cool terms with them at the time they died. It was OK. Theo was there to ensure the person themselves -their life -with all its ups and downs -were captured and celebrated, not brushed under the carpet and hidden so everyone felt to uncomfortable to even mention what the person had been doing the last 30 years. Even more so – allowing the parents to hear that their child was a real person -who loved, lost, laughed and fought -like all of us -and that their drug/alcohol use should/must be accepted as part of their life, their journey, their experience. It contributed to who they are. It cannot be denied – or you deny your child/sibling/friend – and those who cared for him that lived in the same world.
We all need a Theo at our funerals, a celebrant to shine a touching light on our friends, ensuring they are laid to rest with everyone knowing the person -not the myth, not the stereotype, not the’failure or tragic child led astray. We are the summary of our experiences – all of our experiences – the good, the bad, the ugly.
Some days, Theo didn’t need to know who lay there in the coffin. The idea had been to simply turn up (he is now always invited!) and if he felt that heavy, asphyxiating silence fall, like heavy clouds of snowflakes on the shoulders of the family and friends, and the gentle but nervous shuffling of the priest’s ceremonial slippers as he looked around for someone to stand tall and proud and say a heartfelt speech about their loved one, talk briefly about their huge, momentous loss, and wait for the niece or uncle to read out a piece from the deceased favourite novel or poem…well, it sounds comforting doesnt it? But the person in the coffin has been living on the street for almost a decade. Their toes needed operating on to stop them rotting and re-infecting the next one. There parents hadnt seen them for 15 years…they wanted to cover over their fears…
The reality was that no-one at that funeral knew who the person in the coffin was anymore. Close buddies hadn’t been invited, Christ -they were all alcoholics and junkies! The parents expected it would be a disaster. No, they must be buried quickly, happy memories of the childhood rehashed, and everyone would just smudge out the last 20 years. It was a wasted time anyway, those years, they ruined their life, wasted chances, threw offers of help back in the families faces. God, they hadn’t even tried to pay back any of that money nice auntie Kay gave to them to get a deposit on bedsit. No, his homeless friends were not invited -some of them were with him when he died. ‘Imagine that’ the relatives think. ‘They are so wasted and hopeless, they can’t even tell one of their ‘friends’ are dying -they said he was just snoring…No, the funerals of many thousands and thousands of us have been like this. It needs to change now.
So many families hadnt really known their loved one for years. They hadn’t invited them to a family function for over 15 years -no birthdays, no christmas, no easter, no new year….it could have been embarrassing after all. Even if someone had been bold enough to invite them, would they have gone? Would the feel comfortable, welcome, relaxed???What would they wear? What would they say they had been doing ‘lately’? How does one cope with the stares, the feelings of fear, of children’s wide eyed staring from behind mums skirt;
No, most funerals of people who died from drugs are strained…But strained for different reasons. Not from holding back waves of pain and loss! Or rather, pain and loss that is secret. Dark and lonely. shameful. Words that lie stuck deep down in the throat, words of love and caring locked inside a black box of shame and confusion. Of crippling pain, pain that will never fully ease for the parents and loved ones because they know they judged their loved one in life when they didn’t really understand anymore. It weighs heavily forever. The funeral Theo encourages, provides a chance for everyone to relax and share and celebrate a human beings life – all those they loved, things they shared, families they were a part of, tragedies they fought through, those special and raare qualities they had.
We alll need a Theo.
Remember that on International Remembrance Day July 21st, or any day a drug using friend dies. Dont let their lives be erased in ignorance. Celebrate the whole life, and bring everyone peace.
If you want to reach Theo in Amsterdam to talk to him further about his ideas etc, add comment and we will forward them to him immediately.
Some Related articles
- C J TALKS ABOUT: Funerals – How They Benefit The Living (morguemouse.wordpress.com)
- What is a Home Funeral? Reclaiming the Lost Art of Dying at Home and Caring for Our Deceased Loved Ones – SevenPonds is proud to introduce our readers to an amazing conference on home funerals and green burial (sevenponds.com)
- Advice for Controlling Funeral Expenses (epicafinance.com)
- Ten facts about death that everyone needs to know, by Kerrie Noonan (examiner.com)
- Should young children go to funerals? (guardian.co.uk)
- Conflicted Feelings About Funerals (smartlivingnetwork.com)
Travis Jenkins Award 2008; Thanking Theo
Theo has been at the forefront of the fight for the health, welfare and rights of drug users, from within his home in the Netherlandsand internationally. His creative and freethinking approach, his willingness and commitment, his humour – all coupled with his highly principled nature has made him one of the most inspirational and active Drug User Activists in the world.
Throughout the 90’s Theo fought hard to put harm reduction not just on the political agenda, but inside the minds of the using community. His direct approach was unique and he was as up front about how he delivered harm reduction to Dutch users and dealers, as he was to government officials and drug workers.
To try and write succinctly on Theo’s unique contribution to harm reduction leaves me hampered. I’m not sure of the finer details or of the dates of his projects and work.
I do know however, that as a young activist at the IHRA conference in Geneva (in 98/9?) hearing of the work Theo was doing amongst the using community left me feeling anything was possible. His idea behind starting International Drug User Day on November 1st was inspired and the 1st ever international gathering in Amsterdam in 2002? is still talked about today. The IDUD in now an international event, where drug users all over the world unite to protest, lobby, debate and discuss ways to reduce drug related harm, throw off the shackles of stereotyping and discrimination, push forward for effective peer and societal education about drugs, drug use and drug users and save lives.
Theo Van Dam came with the first wave of true international user activism, his experience is valuable, his commitment and belief in his work, is total. This year, the harm reduction world acknowledged and, most importantly thanked Theo Van Dam for his efforts, and I, still an activist he still inspires, thank him wholeheartedly too.
Thanks Theo. xx