Death is unavoidable; death is part of life; death is sad, but not the end of all.

Sharon Stevens, a Calgarian media artist and activist, had a chance to contemplate these ideas  and more during a visit to Vancouver’s “Night for All Souls” event seven years ago, which focuses on death, loss and overcoming the pain that comes with it. When she came back to Calgary, she brought with her a purpose and a plan: to honour the dead and reflect on the nature of death with art and ingenuity.

Stevens wanted to bring a community together, so that death would not tear loved ones apart, but bring new loved ones, friends and strangers alike together. Her way of doing that in Calgary was to create the Equinox Vigil, which is now in its sixth year.

Union Cemetery entrance lit up at night on the autumn equinox, Sept. 22, 2017. Photo by Omar Subhi Omar

Taking place on the autumn equinox, Sept. 22, the vigil is an event that plays on many global traditions, such as Mexico’s Day of the Dead. It focuses on the celebration of life, the meaning and role of death, and the settlement into mourning, acceptance and progress towards what lies beyond.

When asked what she hoped to provide Calgarians with through the vigil, Stevens says, “to put on an event like this, we needed the tenacity of an activist, and compassion. We’re bringing the community here to honour our dead and create a village.”

At the Calgary Equinox Vigil, many artists and collaborators pool their efforts into artistically spreading a message and meaning behind death. Using that to honour their loved ones in their own way, they creatively educate visitors on the experience and acceptance of loss, or, in some cases, have the visitors come to their own conclusions on death and loss through participatory exhibits and activities.

A heart-shaped shrine filled with various religious idols to promote the non-secular/non-excluding spirit of the vigil. Photo by Omar Subhi Omar

“I think it’s very important that my daughter knows what death means. I thought it was important we could have a conversation around death, and I figured that it was good this conversation was taking place around all these artists and performers,” says Katherine Cvrcek, who attended the vigil with her young daughter.

This year’s vigil, which took place at Union Cemetery – a previous host to past vigils – was almost 1,000 visitors strong and featured many unique exhibits and fixtures. One of the many installations was The Digital Shrine, where people could write down messages to their departed loved ones, which were then placed on a projector for all to see. A candle-lit lantern procession also took place, which pushed away the settling night with a gently bright display.

A vigil visitor places their message to their departed loved one in an ornamental vase featuring various memorabilia. Photo by Omar Subhi Omar

One such fixture was a dance performance by independent Flamenco dancer, Rosanna Terracciano, which took place by the cemetery’s Poet’s Bench. Titled We All Need To Say Goodbye/Adios, this thought-provoking routine, coupled with Flamenco props, was, as Terracciano put it, her “meditation on death and loss,” and she welcomed those viewing it to come to their conclusions on its nature.

Rosanna Terracciano, a Flamenco artist, performs “We All Have To Say Goodbye/Adios.” Photo by Omar Subhi Omar

“Life isn’t just addition or subtraction of experiences, but also a multiplication and division amplified by loss,” says Terracciano when asked what her props signified.

As the vigil passed from evening to night, lamp processions lit the slowly darkening cemetery. While people carried on their messages to their loved ones, the night was filled with the passing of words from the living to the departed.

oomar@cjournal.ca

Editor: Ashley King | aking@cjournal.ca