Thursday, August 30, 2012

My Friend Mott-ly

My Friend Mott-ly is a project near and dear to my heart.  This documentary, by Chris Snipes, tells the story of Lee 'Mott-ly' Tisdale.  Mott-ly was a dear friend and a talented artist, whose courage and vision shone through his devastating illnesses.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Night for All Souls: An Interview with Paula Jardine

OCTOBER 27, 2010

A Night for All Souls is a yearly event held at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver, BC.  Returning for its sixth year  'A night' provides opportunities for the public to commemorate their dead in a family oriented community art event. Activities this year include a popular sugar skull crafting workshop, music, candles, the serving of tea, and the opportunity to create personal memorials.  Visual and performing artists come together with members of the community to share and contribute to this wonderful event.  Paula Jardine, Mountain View Cemetery's Artist in Residence, and the creator of this event has graciously agreed to discuss this project on The Daily Undertaker
2007: credit Claire Alexander - Chinese altar 8237 : Walter Quan demonstrates his family's way of honouring the ancestors with food and incense offerings, and folding joss paper and burning it. There is a lovely casual exchange of different customs with people who drop by, and it's also an opportunity for non asian people to feel welcomed to learn and participate

Pat McNally: In your work with A Night for All Souls, you have created and facilitated many wonderful ceremonies and rituals acknowledging our dead and the loss we experience in their passing.  What specific personal and community needs does this festival address?     
Paula Jardine: The Night for All Souls grew out of work I had been doing with Marina Szijarto- who I work with closely on this event. Really what we were trying to do was reclaim traditions that our own ancestors seemed to have forgotten to pass on to us. We may not live in the village where our ancestors are buried, but that human impulse to remember the dead – as a way of keeping them in our lives – is still there.  It seemed to us that artists have an important role to play in the sacred life of our increasingly secular society: that even if someone is not religious it doesn’t mean they don’t have spiritual needs.   The biggest gift of the night for all souls is I think the social aspect; except at funerals or memorials, we do not invite conversation about death and it’s presence in our lives. At this event, we are surrounded by people who, simply by being present, have acknowledged that they share that experience.  People create memorial shrines, or write messages and names on prayer flags, or the memorial triptych that Marina has created, and we can see that we are not alone. We inspire each other with our words, and with the beauty of our creations. It is a very supportive environment- not somber, but definitely caring and gentle.  

Infant area cradle, Haruko Okano
photo credit: Claire Alexander
PM: One of the really remarkable and inspiring parts of A night for All Souls is that many different cultures, faiths and traditions are incorporated and welcomed.  Is there something universal that we can all relate to in this?  Could this be a model for how we engage and relate to others?   

PJ:   Well death is definitely something that all cultures share!  I believe that culture is a living thing, not static; by bringing our own traditions and sharing them, we influence each other and something new is made.  It’s something that may be truly Canadian, that willingness to share culture and allow it to transform to meet our needs. 

We chose this time of year because it is traditional in so many northern hemisphere traditions, all soul’s, all hallows eve, Celtic New Year.  And there was also discussion about how “under siege” the cemetery is around Hallowe’en, and a sense that by reinforcing the sacred nature of the cemetery it would make it safer.
Triptych: Marina Szijarto
photo credit: Claire Alexander
We initially thought this event would appeal to people without a strong cultural or religious tradition, but we are finding that many religious people of different backgrounds also come: perhaps death, being the great equalizer, is also the light of truth, that is, it illuminates the central tenant of all the religions, which is Love.  
PM: Children experience death just as the rest of us do, but they often lack the communication skills and perspective that can help adults share and move through their grief.  What can an experience like participating in All Souls give to children?

PJ: I think it has a normalizing effect.  We were just talking about that at our Sugar Skulls workshop (another borrowed tradition that people have been making their own) and how having a traditional time set aside to talk about death, and those who have come before us, creates an opportunity for children to understand that they are part of a continuum, and that death is a natural part of life.  Importantly, it introduces children to the idea of death when it is not a calamity.   We have beautiful paper and votive candles and flowers for the creation of personal memorials at the event as well, and we’ve found we don’t have to explain that to children, in fact they seem to inspire the adults.

Friend: Nicole Dextras
(chinese pavillion in background)
photo credit: Claire Alexander 

PM: The intersection of Art and Death is a major theme on The Daily Undertaker.  What are your thoughts about the role of art in grasping and dealing with the sometimes overwhelming and unknowable reality of our mortality?

PJ:   Art allows us an opportunity to disengage our rational mind and swim in the poetic. The expression of our feelings through art can be therapeutic both for the creator and the viewer; simple gestures can be cathartic and help us heal.  One year artist Nicole Dextras created a memorial to a friend with ice letters: the letters melted throughout the evening as a visible expression of the impermanence of our own lives; another artist created a wooden ship that was also a flying phoenix, to carry the memory of her father:  the works of the artists who create things for all souls uplift us all to greater heights of beauty and expression.

PM: Throughout human existence, the places of the dead and the places of the living have alternately been shared and separate.  In bringing the living into Mountain View Cemetery through arts and cultural events, our perception of these places, and our place within them changes.  What are your thoughts on the separation and bringing together of these two worlds?

PJ:  When I first approached the manager, Glen Hodges, the cemetery was going through a major renewal, driven by a public process that established a master plan for regenerating interment space.  One of the things that surfaced in the public process was a desire for public and community arts in the cemetery: A Night for All Souls addresses a community need to feel engaged with the cemetery; and to claim it as an active public space.  My feelings about that are best expressed by this quote from Maria Papacostaki’s book, "The Town of the Forty Churches" : 

“ they slept their eternal sleep, resting assured that those left behind would continue looking after them according to their traditions and familiar ways, because every one of us will end up in the same place and all of us long to know that after we have crossed the dark river, we are still loved, and remembered and looked after.”
Phoenix: Tamara Unroe
photo credit: Claire Alexander
PM: What do you think our culture would look like if more artists were engaged to be civil servants?

PJ: Artists are creative problem solvers; I do actually think that it should be policy to have an artist on every team within the city structure, especially in engineering.  There would be less emphasis on doing things for purely practical reasons, so there would be more whimsy. We might have more beauty in general, and roads might be less straight (or maybe they would be invisible!)   And artists know how to stretch a dollar, that’s for sure, so we might even have less debt load! 

Here is a schedule of this year's activities.  For more information visit Mountain View Cemetery Saturday - October 30th 6pm - 10pm
The 6th Annual Night for All Souls
Music, Candles and Flowers
Sunday - October 31st 7pm - 8pm
The Threshold Choir
The all-women choir honours the ancient tradition of singing at the bedsides of people
who are struggling: some with living, some with dying.
Monday - November 1st 7pm
A special showing of the film: A Family Undertaking - Home Funerals in America
Tuesday - November 2nd 6pm - 9pm
Tea in the evening

Events take place in Celebration Hall, 5445 Fraser Street at 39th Avenue

For more on Mountain View Cemetery, please visit my interview with Cemetery Manager, Glen Hodges

Sunday, August 5, 2012

In Lieu of Memorials, Please Send Flowers

A director I used to work with always said 'flowers are the bain of the funeral director's existence'. Indeed, we spend a lot of our time arranging flowers at the chapel for visitation, then moving them to church for the service, then, taking some to the grave, some to the home, some to this nursing home and that hospice. In the cold weather we have to wrap and unwrap the flowers and plants with plastic so they don't wither away. Pollen satins our white shirts, petals fall and stinky water spills all over in the vehicles. I almost lost a finger in a flower stand accident!

Often, the family has no idea of what to do with all the flowers and plants they get- who has room for all of this, and do you really want to look at it for a week? In order for the family to be able to write accurate thank-you notes to everyone who sends flowers, the funeral home staff has to make sure there is a description on the back of all the cards of the pieces, and there is almost never a description on the back. Don't even get me started on the giant trees some people send when the family lives in an apartment or nursing home! And then, there's the cost- many families ask 'why not put the money to better use- let's just list a memorial instead.'

Well, I'm all for donating to worthy charities, and I won't mind only moving five pieces of flowers to church tomorrow, but when I die, I'd like my obituary to read 'In lieu of memorials, please send flowers'.
Flowers are a visible expression for a grieving family that their friends and family and neighbors and coworkers care and are thinking of them in their loss. When a family comes in before their visitation, the first thing they do after weeping at the casket is look at all the flowers and say 'isn't that nice, aren't these beautiful, look these are from my job! these are from our neighbor!' When they come into the chapel for the service, again there is the visual reminder of all the people who may not have the words to make things any better, but have shown by their actions that this person and this loss are meaningful. Whatever the cost of the flowers, and whatever is done with them afterwards-they made a difference to that family.

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization.