Taken from an article in the Times Colonist
If someone suggested an afternoon at the cemetery, your first thought likely wouldn’t be: “Hey, that sounds like a good time.”
Victoria artist Paula Jardine hopes to change your mind about that. She’s a Canadian pioneer in a rarefied field: the creation of community events honouring the dead through art.
Jardine is artist-in-residence at Royal Oak Burial Park, where today there will be free public entertainment — and yes, even a good time — on offer.
Summer So(u)lstice will offer a rollicking New Orleans-style brass band, a harpist and a choir. Wandering clarinetists will play in the woodlands and at a mausoleum. Poets will pen personalized poems for the public. There will even be vintage car display and refreshments.
It’s the eighth year Summer So(u)lstice has been held at Royal Oak Burial Park, one of the largest cemeteries in Western Canada.
There are just two annual events like this in the country — the other is the All Souls sacred celebration at Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver.
Both are overseen by Jardine, their founding organizer. She’s the only cemetery-based artist-in-residence in Canada curating such occasions.
“It’s quite unique,” said the veteran artist, who has created community-art happenings of all sorts for decades.
Summer So(u)lstice isn’t your typical outdoor party. The central intent is to honour the dead with dignity and respect. Loved ones are memorialized in an enjoyable, uplifting — and even fun — manner through art. As well as music, and poetry, the event features the creation of personalized artworks: Summer So(u)lstice visitors are encouraged to write tributes to the departed on “memory flags” hung along terraces).
Between 150 and 200 people attend Summer So(u)lstice each year. Some have friends and/or family members buried at Royal Oak, the only not-for-profit municipal burial park in British Columbia.
Others come to mourn loved ones interred or cremated elsewhere.
A Psychology Today article once identified death as the No. 1 taboo subject in America.
Jardine says Summer So(u)lstice breaks through the traditional reluctance — and even fear — many North Americans feel about discussing death and mourning.
“This is something we really need. It’s a social event where it’s OK if you’re crying, because the person next to you is probably crying too,” she said.
“But there’s also going to be laughing and drinking tea,” Jardine added, noting some families even bring picnics.
She first got the idea of social events honouring the dead after attending her own father’s funeral in Edmonton in 1995.
Jardine found it a disappointment: sterile, drab and alienating. “There was no beauty involved. Just this kind of gothic, weird, expensive experience,” she said.
Before her father’s death Jardine had organized an annual event in Vancouver called Parade of Lost Souls. It was a community procession on Halloween through the back alleys of the Commercial Drive area. The intent was to “reclaim” Halloween as a sacred event to honour the dead.
The disappointment with her dad’s funeral — and her experiences with Parade of Lost Souls — led to her founding A Night for All Souls at Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery in 2005, followed by Summer So(u)lstice in 2010.
In preparation for A Night for All Souls, Jardine studied international memorial and funeral practices. She’d also travelled to England on a Canada Council grant to meet with artists doing funeral-related work.
Jardine’s interest in artistic responses to death date back to 1971. She performed a parade led by the artist ManWoman at the Edmonton Speedway, doing a “death dance” in a skeleton costume.
“There’s a lot of opportunities in grieving and memorializing for art and beauty … I think that’s a fundamental impulsive, to completely embrace the dead with beauty,” she said.
Her interest in creating opportunities for personalized responses to death extends to her own life.
When Jardine’s mother-in-law died last April, her daughter and husband hand-built the casket. The family had the body at home for a time before her interment at Royal Oak Burial Park.
Jardine has already planned her own funeral. She’d like to be buried in a biodegradable box on on Saturna Island. There will be a garden gate with a sign that says: “Everyone welcome — step through.”
She’d originally wanted have a tree planted on the grave as well.
“I wanted to have an apple tree, so I could feed my great grand-children on my gave. I’d be literally feeding them. That was my idea.”
However, Jardine has since changed her mind about that detail. The decision came after she placed some of her late grandfather’s ashes at the roots of a gooseberry bush as a living tribute.
“It bore a lot of fruit the first year. But I found I couldn’t quite put that in my mouth.”
Royal Oak Burial Park hosts other public events. There’s the annual Little Spirits Vigil for families who’ve lost babies. There’s also a Mother’s Day event in which carnations are given out.
Crystabelle Fobler, Royal Oak’s new executive director, says the park is considering a new venture that’s increasingly popular in North America. It is a “death café,” to be hosted by a funeral director.
“People are getting together over tea and cookies, just talking about death,” she said.
When Jardine tells new acquaintances she’s artist-in-residence at two cemeteries, they’re sometimes surprised.
Yet it’s anything but a conversation-killer. “People are so relieved to talk about it,” she said with a smile, “so I hear everyone’s death stories.”
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