Dear Mortality: a visit to the graveyard
Approaching the graveyard at night, around the end of October, beginning of November, you’ll find it lit with fire. Inside the cemetery gates, and visible from the sidewalks of the flanking streets, freestanding logs, as tall as full-grown men, burn from the inside out. The flames beckon, warm fingers coax you away from the street, the cold rain, and the world of the living.
You see the first shrine. A massive tree trunk covered in little tin flowers. Vanity mirrors hang by their handles from the branches like ripe fruit. The wind rustles the leaves, the mirrors sway, and our reflections waiver. You feel off kilter and upside down. Write something — of love, fear, the colour of grief — anything, on a piece of paper and hang it from the branches of the tree. Your message will be carried away on the current of air that whips strands of hair across your frigid cheeks.
A group of poets pulls a wagon of books under an umbrella caravan. They stop at random to read poetry to whomever may be near. In the middle of it all, a marimba band plays. The music comes in waves over the percussion of rain and the soft roar of the wind.
You’ve stumbled on Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver’s only public graveyard. In 1996, the city started work on a master plan to revitalize the cemetery after ten years of stagnation followed by a community outcry when plans to sell were made public. Manager Glen Hodges arrived four years later from Saskatoon.
“It goes back to redefining how the cemetery fits into community,” says Hodges. He hopes art culture will spread in the funeral industry and eventually allow mourners to have a more active role in memorializing. He imagines services where artists support mourners in a creative, participatory task, like weaving a baby casket out of reeds.
All Souls is a multi-day cemetery animation to “honour old traditions and create new ones.” The evenings are funded entirely by Mountain View, and have been since the first grant application was denied. The events are free to attend. “I don’t know if we’ve ever had less than 1000 people for it. We’re going to continue doing it.” In Hodges view, the cemetery isn’t just a place to house the dead. It’s also for the living.