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Union Cemetery celebrates life with art

By Danielle Kim, September 13 2016 —

Most Calgarians know Union Cemetery simply as ‘Cemetery Hill,’  a landmark you drive on the way to the downtown core. But on September 17, the cemetery will transform into a twinkling village complete with whimsical art installations, musicians and singing choirs.

The Equinox Vigil is a celebration of life and death. Not only is it an unconventional way to bring a community together, but it also allows those who have experienced death to find healing and comfort.

Founder and producer of the Equinox Vigil Sharon Stevens, drew from personal experiences to bring her vision to life.

“I was partly inspired when my dad died 20 years ago. The funeral and the process afterwards were just kind of foreign to me. It didn’t resonate with me and I always felt kind of adrift because of it,”
Stevens says.

In 2006, Stevens met artists in residence producing a similar event in a Vancouver cemetery, and she decided that she wanted to produce her own in Calgary. After two years of convincing the City of Calgary that it would be a good idea, the first Vigil was held in 2012.

Stevens is an artist herself and contributed the idea of the Digital Shrine to the Vigil. It allows people to write personal messages to the deceased, which are then projected on a surface in the cemetery for all to see.

Stevens emphasizes that the Vigil does not prescribe to any specific religion.

“It’s a spiritual event, but it’s not religious. The choirs don’t sing sad, religious songs — but more upbeat ones,” she says. “The mayor came a few years ago and talked about it being a ritual, which it is. It’s important for families to gather with a ritual and think about the same thing at the same time; there’s a lot of power in that.”

Other featured artists include Caitlind r.c Brown and Wayne Garrett. Their names may sound familiar, as they both made an appearance at Calgary’s Nuit Blanche festival with their installation CLOUD in 2012. For the Equinox Vigil, they will contribute The Deep Dark. The piece consists of 12 doorways that will be set up in the cemetery, illuminating as visitors pass through them.

Stevens also spoke on how engineering an event like the Equinox Vigil presents unique obstacles.

“It’s amazing to work art into a cemetery — we have to be super conscious and respectful of where headstones are and where we guide the public. It’s a challenge but a worthwhile one,” she says.

The evening will also have an educational component. Calgary historian laureate Harry Sanders will provide historical information and stories about Calgary’s oldest cemetery.

Stevens refers to the event as a “sanctuary for tender feelings.” For some families that visit, it could be one of the first times they talk about mortality to their children. She says there’s no reason that shouldn’t take place in a beautiful, welcoming space.

“As an artist myself, I really think we have a sacred responsibility to put on an event like this in a colourful, beautiful and respectful way,” she says. “Everybody comes to this event with their own experience of death and loss. The artists, musicians and participants are all there more or less from a place of love.”

The Equinox Vigil is a free event and runs September 17 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

For more information, visit equinoxvigil.ca

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