Artist-led Union Cemetery vigil honours the dead

“This is not like a normal installation in a public space. This is not like a gallery setting obviously but it’s also not like doing it in Olympic Plaza or any other public space” says Sharon Stevens of the artist-led vigil in Union Cemetery that she’s curating. “You’re going to be working with people’s tender feelings. So it’s one thing to put up a shrine and make it look beautiful — we also have to take it apart with the same intention and the same love and beauty.”

The experience which takes place during the fall equinox begins at the base of the hill leading up to the inner-city cemetery by a large sandstone arch that Stevens calls “the threshold.” A slow purposeful walk leads you past a video installation by Stevens herself titled “Light2Dark” and an accompanying soundscape by Kenna Burima.

Once at the top you have your choice of activities. You’ll pass art installations by Leslie Sweder and Sandra Vida; listen to poet laureate Kris Demeanor; make your own memorial or lantern to remember a loved one; or perhaps speak with historian Harry Sanders about the cemetery itself. Bring a teacup (there are some to borrow too) and take part in a communal tea hosted by performance artist Shelley Ouellet. Then at 8 or 9 p.m. join one of the lantern-lit processions that will wind down Reader Rock Road to the exit.

“I like the journey” says Stevens of the steep climb up the hill. “Then the communion up here and then the procession on the way out where people can feel like they have a beginning middle and end.”

For Stevens the project is dedicated to her father who passed away in 1995. She also has an artistic connection with vigils having worked with artists Marina Szijarto and Paula Jardine who have run similar events in Vancouver for the past seven years. Stevens explains “It’s not a funeral it’s not meant to be a counselling kind of service — it’s what the artists I mentored with in Vancouver call a ‘sanctuary for tender feelings.’

“What I’m trying to create here on September 22 is an opportunity for Calgarians to come to an event to honour all traditions and find ways to remember and honour and recognize and speak about their deceased loved ones.”

Stevens who says credit should be given to the City of Calgary for allowing her to organize the event adds that there are measures in place — such as volunteer wayfinders and a drop-off point at the top of the hill — to ensure that no one gets lost and that everyone can access the site.

“It’s a worldwide tradition right?” says Stevens noting that Halloween and the Day of the Dead are just over a month away. “Animating this cemetery in a thoughtful and creative and conscientious way by artists is what I’m trying to achieve.”