Can a Vigil be both sad and lively?

On Saturday 19th November I was helping at a vigil in Coventry. Called ‘Counting Dead Women’, it was held in advance of the eliminating male violence against women and girls day (Friday 25th November).

At least 2 women a week in the UK are killed by male partners or ex-partners or, more rarely, by a random male who is looking specifically for a female victim. This particular vigil in Coventry, coming as it did the day after a man was convicted of killing his ex-wife and mother-in-law (in a so-called ‘honour killing’), and another man was convicted of killing a female student he had selected randomly, was seen as particularly newsworthy, and we made the regional news headlines that evening on both BBC and ITV.

Vigils have been in the news a lot in the last couple of months – not least the vigils held by the children and grandchildren of the late Queen, and the vigils held around the world, including the UK, for the murdered women and girls of Iran.

So, what exactly is a vigil? My Collins dictionary describes it as a purposeful watch maintained [  ] to guard, observe, pray etc. … The period of such a watch. It is from the Old French / Medieval Latin, vigilia – the watch preceding a religious festival. But the origins of the word are older – from the Latin vigere – to be lively.

The vigils just prior to the late Queen’s funeral were very much in the tradition of the vigilia: solemn, silent, still, and preceding a religious event (i.e. her funeral). But many modern vigils have a more active, not to say lively (vigere) element. Our Coventry vigil including poetry, singing, speeches by several of the local councillors, the reading aloud of the names of the women killed every hour, and a display of shoes – 114 pairs, one for each woman killed. And the public were encouraged to come up and ask questions. Looking at the TV coverage of the event when I returned home, I felt the sadness of the occasion was enhanced by the attention the vigil drew to the liveliness, not just the lives, that these women had lost.

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