Let’s just jump right in and say it: no one likes talking about death. It’s uncomfortable and awkward and a lot of other feelings, too. And it’s more than a little eerie to think that everything comes to an end.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, Sharon Stevens doesn’t want talking about death to be like that at all. Stevens is a media artist and the founder and co-producer of the city’s Equinox Vigil, an annual event that takes place around the fall equinox at the Union Cemetery. The one-day event is not dark or sad or somber. It’s the exact opposite. There are lights, art installations, musical performances and hundreds of people, all embracing mortality and talking about it. Essentially, the event is a kind of party, complete with a tea garden.
This year, the Equinox Vigil runs on Saturday, September 17. Here’s some more information on the free event and why you’ll want to pencil it into your calendar.
The inspiration for Equinox Vigil
Stevens started this event a few years after the death of her father. “When he died, I felt like I didn’t have any way to honour his memory,” says Stevens. “There was a Catholic funeral, but I felt like I needed something a bit more.”
For Stevens, the idea for that “something a bit more” began in 2010 after visiting Vancouver. She met the artists-in-residence for Vancouver’s A Night For All Souls event. (It’s an event running over several days that is non-denominational and honours the dead in creative ways. This year is its 11th year.) Stevens worked with the artists, volunteered her time and learned more about how the event worked.
Inspired by the powerful community of people coming together, Stevens decided Calgary needed something similar. In 2012, Calgary’s first Equinox Vigil took place. Stevens believes that Calgary and Vancouver are the only two cities in Canada that host events like this.
The Calgary concept
Cultures around the world gather in cemeteries in October and November to celebrate the lives of the dead. Vancouver’s A Night For All Souls takes place at the end of October and early November, and Mexico’s Day of the Dead is in the beginning of November, too. Equinox Vigil is a little different – instead of running in November, it falls as close to the fall equinox as possible. “I like honouring the fall equinox because of the seasonal change,” says Stevens. “Everything is going dormant and it’s the death of the summer season. Plus, it’s too cold in November here for an outdoor event!”
The goal of Equinox Vigil is to bring the community together, celebrate mortality through art and music, and hopefully remove some of the stigma around talking about death.
What Stevens loves about the event
The inaugural event saw 200 attendees – Stevens remembers because each person was given a commemorative hanky. Last year, 500 attended and similar numbers are expected this year. While this shows a desire and need for a creative, down-to-earth celebration of this sort, Stevens loves most how the event is accessible to all.
“Lots of families come to this event – and lots of children,” says Stevens. “Sometimes it’s the first opportunity that families have to talk about mortality. And I like that there are lots of seniors that come and they share stories. You see senior citizens talking with younger families. It’s just a comforting place to be.”
“Everyone comes at the event from a place of love,” says Stevens.
What you need to know about Equinox Vigil this year
For the fifth annual Equinox Vigil, there’s going to be art installations, poetry, and because 2016 is the Year of Music in Calgary, there will also be plenty of music. Here’s more information on what you can expect at this year’s event.
There will be a lot of musicians
This year’s event will be particularly musical. Solo artist The Hermitess will perform and Kenna Burima will sing “Come to Me In Cold Dark Slumber.” The Threshold Choir, the Union Choir and the Calgary Renaissance Singers and Players will all bring music to the cemetery. Also present will be Chantal Chagnon and Cheryle Chagnon-Greyeyes, First Nations artists specializing in singing, drumming and storytelling. These women will open the ceremony and lead the processions.
There will be numerous art installations
You’ll see a participatory sculpture that looks like doorways by Caitlind r.c. Brown and Wayne Garrett, beautifully carved Styrofoam installations by Eveline Kolijn, a deconstructed piano, paper sculptures called Frog Lantern by Aran Wilkinson-Blanc and looping animated portraits of the One Yellow Rabbit ensemble. (It’s called Renderrabbits – maybe you saw it at High Performance Rodeo this year.) All pieces encourage connectedness, highlight beauty and pay tribute to those who have passed.
You’ll learn a little history
Calgary’s historian laureate Harry Sanders will be sharing stories of the Union Cemetery and some of the influential Calgarians who are buried there.
There will be a digital shrine that’s kind of like movie credits
Participants write tributes and these are projected onto a screen for all to see. Halifax-based poet Sue Goyette will then incorporate some of these tributes into a piece of poetry that she’ll read at the end of the night.
Also, this year the event will take place on the Spiller Road side of Union Cemetery, making it new for people who attend every year. And the City will be supplying bike racks.
Equinox Vigil is a free event starting at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, September 17. Union Cemetery, Erlton St. and 32 Ave. S.W., equinoxvigil.ca.