Monday, January 7, 2013

Eulogizing locally with Emily Sloan

Dean Liscum

Emily Sloan is an artist, but she's also a facilitator, which is to say that she is a grand manipulator. If she sold used cars, I'd have 3 of them. If she needed someone to rob a bank for a "good cause," I'd be on COPS greatest hits. As a performance artist, her medium is her audience. She establishes the rules, sets up the constraints. Then the show begins. They witness and they participate. It is the audience participation that gives her pieces a sense of anticipatory wonder for me.

Her blog described the event at 14 Pews as 
...(an) interactive performance project comprised of the exploration of healing and death rituals to encourage participants towards realizations of the brevity of life and to aid in connecting to the present.
This kind of drama was enough to get the attention of the New York Times, so I figured it was worth my time.

As soon as I walked in I was greeted by two deaconesses. Before I could give them my spiel about how I'm an art blogger and a friend of the artist, and well humanity really, they simultaneously chimed "ten dollars please" and then gave me a "your money or your life" look. I simply emptied my wallet into their cup. As an after thought or an apology, one of them called out to me, "we're deaconesses."

Deaconesses or Bouncers

I took my seat and watched Sloan make minor adjustments to the space. Attendees lined up at the Eugology writing assistance table. Some were inquisitive and concerned. Some were quick. Some were needy.

When the eulogy assistance program was complete, Sloan began the service with a brief summary of what it was all about. Then she gave the first eulogy, which was for collection of Wayne Gilbert's paintings currently on display at 14 Pews. This act could have been humorous or ironic except for the fact that these paintings are made from the ashes (crematory remains) of people whose next of kin never collected their remains. Sloan pointed out that because these ashes were never claimed, they were never properly eulogized. So she did. 

And then the eulogies began.

The first eulogist enlisted the audience to help his sing a song by supplying the chorus which went...
You just bear this in mind, a true friend is hard to find /
Don't you mind people grinnin' in your face. 
I'm not exactly sure how the song was a eulogy but he got it passed the deacons. Who am I to question them? Then a series of assisted eulogies followed. They had a Mad Lib quality about them. Each included a lines quantifying the duration of the relationship in minutes, "I knew the (eulogized) for ________ minutes." Another product of eulogy assistance involved secreting away the eulogized. "...hiding the (eulogized) in ___________.

Relationships were eulogized. A couple of participants eulogized ex-lovers, who I gathered were not deceased but were dead to the speakers. One lover seemed to morn the loss of her lovers big truck more than the lover. Friends eulogized each other. A husband eulogized his wife. She eulogized him back. One man eulogized himself.

I'm not sure if these eulogies were encomiums, high praise for thriving relationships, or velleities, weak wishes for their quick, quiet demise.

One woman eulogized a particular pen. I think it could be expanded to all writing implements, as several smartphones buzzed and chimed.

Another woman gave a eulogy in Spanish and then left with her friends before I could ask her to translate.

It's probably blasphemous to admit that I had a favorite eulogy, but I did. Two, actually: by Stalina Villarreal and Koomah. 

Villarreal eulogized the skin on her breast. Koomah, similar to our pony-tailed choir master, chose not to mourn but to educate. He described the Japanese superstitions around death. A few of the were
  • Not saying the words for the numbers 4 and 9, because they are the same as "death" and "pain". As many Americans buildings don't have a thirteenth floor, many Japanese buildings don't have a fourth or a ninth.
  • Don't sleep with your head pointing north because that's how the dead are buried.
  • Don't write someone's name in red because the name of spouse's of the dead are written in red on the dead's tombstone and then washed away when the spouse dies.
  • Don't pass things from chop sticks to chop sticks because that's what's done as a funeral ritual.
  • Don't cut your nails at night or death will come early.

When the eulogies concluded, Sloan asked the congregation to form a circle and hold hands. She described it as a "primal scream circle". We each took turns individually screaming or not and then squeezing the hand of the person on our left to indicate that we were done. Then we collectively screamed. 

Temporarily unburdened, we followed Sloan to the Funeral pyre burning in the back yard. A few people quietly burned some mementos.  One individual burned a pair of sunglasses for a friend who had died in a motor cycle accident. The ceremony concluded. We went inside to share a potluck meal.

As I waited in line for the food, I reflected on and was a little surprised at how very small and personal the ceremony was.

No one eulogized violence against women or the converse, women's equal rights. No one eulogized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian oppression or the rebel uprising, the Egyptian constitution, or Human rights abuses in Russia or the travel visa of those who commit them. No one eulogized Ai Wei Wei or his interrogators. No one eulogized assault weapons or banana clips or elementary kids simply doing what elementary schools do. No one eulogized global warming. No one eulogized Foxconn or the end of assembling 21st century technology in a 18th century manner, namely by hand. No one eulogized the war on drugs or terror or immigrants.

I don't know that that was a good thang or a bad thang. May be it's just a thang. Sloan let the ceremony unfold organically, and that's how it played out. May be it's a sign that we need to deal with our thangs, first, before we can finish up some of these other thangs. May be it's a shortcoming.

I wasn't sure then. I'm still not.

So I ate my Hoppin' John with the rest of the congregation and wished myself and the world a little luck. I think we're gonna need it, whatever the thangs we need to put behind us in the coming year.


1 comment:

  1. Well done Dean !
    You saw it like I did. With only 14 Pews we were not far apart in any area of the Chapel.
    BTW ... I got passed the "deaconesses" the same way you did .... I paid them ;-). before I realized they were actually the sweet girls I first perceived them to be ... playing the "role of deaconesses."