A place to remember is an act of resistance

Orlando Memorial at the 519 in Toronto

Orlando Memorial at the 519 in Toronto

I regret only stopping by briefly to pay my respects at this memorial for the Orlando shooting that has been growing at the 519 Community Centre in the heart of Toronto’s lgbt village.   I was on my way elsewhere with a group of people and when we stopped to read the names.  I struck by how young so many of them were and I must have said that out loud.  “Yes, they were”, said a very quiet voice behind me.

I turned to see a kind, sad face of a woman looking at me.  She started to tell me about a friend of hers who was killed, but his name could not be listed because he was not out to his family.  She had no where to go to remember who he was.  She spoke so quietly I could barely hear her.  For a few minutes we were quiet together.  I said I was grateful that she told me about her friend and how important I thought it was that she remembered him as he would want to be remembered.

Another very kind woman at the site offered me a cup of tea. I supposed she was with the 519, and they were trying to create some hospitality for folks who were stopping by.  I said no and caught up with my group.  But since then I wish I had stayed or returned back to spend some real time there, just being with people who are wandering around, looking for a place to remember, a place to find a bit of comfort and company.  How important it is to create actual physical places for people to mourn and to comfort each other.

So much has been taken in Orlando.  Little acts of compassion and hospitality are so important.  The queer community has always created it’s own places of welcome and care and we will repair the breach that has been opened by this violent act of hate — one story and one cup of tea and one candle and one name at a time.


Remembering names, restoring honour

huroniaI was very honoured to walk with the survivors at the “Lost but not Forgotten” Memorial at the Huronia Regional Centre cemetery in May this year.

The story of the graveyard mirrors the story of abuse and exclusion that surrounds the institution. People disappeared, were buried without names, and their burial ground has been desecrated by sewage pipes.

In recent years, survivors and allies have organized, researched and advocated with government to reclaim and restore the cemetery. Much has been acheived and there is much more to do.

We gathered at the bottom of the road. The day was grey and wet and cold. Survivors assembled with signs of loss–a homemade casket, a hand-sewn banner, baskets of comforting things that had been denied, photos of relatives. We carried them up the hill, together, walking behind the pipers.

As I listened to the pipes I was reminded of the recent funeral of my brother where we also processed behind a piper. It was full of honour and dignity as his colleagues paid their respects. This procession looked pretty different, but embodied the same claim of dignity, honour and respect. By the time we reached the gate, I felt like we were setting something right with our simple solemn walk of honour.

We gathered in a circle to honour the dead, at at the same time it was an honouring of the living as the survivors expressed not only their grief, but also their outrage at what has happened to their families and friends.   I witnessed stories of cruelty and harm and unthinkable loss.  At the same time, people made all kinds of creative offerings and the circle filled with care.

I decided to bring little bundles of lavender, an ancient herb used in honouring and washing the dead. Every body deserves an honourable rite at the end of their life.  In a small way I hoped we could  restore some goodness by offering a symbolic act of honouring.  Some of us sprinkled the lavender over the graves.  I appreciated the way it lingered on my hands, marking my own body with the memory of those who died. I hope I can carry their memory with honour.

Death is not the end of love and those who lie in the Huronia cemetery, known and unknown, continue to be loved and remembered. Survivors continue to resist, to bear witness to their own truth and to compell the wider community to Remember Every Name.

The community conversation for Remember Every Name is on Facebook, where you can ask to join the group.


Speakers for the Dead

While069752 exploring the National Film Board website this summer I came across a powerful story of a community effort to restore a cemetery near Priceville Ontario, called Speakers for the Dead.  The film describes how the area was the  landing spot a community of Black veterans from the war of 1812.  They were promised land by the government, but were eventually displaced by white settlers who were given deeds to the land.

While the community was dispersed their cemetery remained, but it was not honoured by the farmers who laid claim to the land. In fact the opposite.  The gravestones were removed and used as bases in a baseball field and pavers in rough basements.   There are interviews with people who defend these desecrations as ordinary events with ‘no harm intended’.  But their claims are thin disguise for their racism.

As I watched the movie I was reminded of so many similar stories where the lack of respect for the dead mirrors a disregard for the human rights of the living.  The Truth and Reconciliation Missing Children Project  and the Huronia Regional settlement also include efforts to reinstate burial grounds.

There’s a fascinating thesis in the film that points to an underlying motive in the community to cover up, to bury, the mixed race history of the existing population. Erasing the cemetery erases the possibility that people have interracial ancestry.  There’s an article in the Washington Post that explores this further.

Cemeteries are political places that uncover the stories of the past and connect us to past and present realities of injustice.  This film is deeply disturbing.  But at the community story of resistance and reclaiming has also stayed with me and reinforced the significance of communal places to remember those who have gone before.

Speakers for the Dead on the National Film Board website
A film by Jennifer Holness and David Sutherland

Garden Avenue School
June 2014


Last night at my daughter’s school we had a memorial for a young teacher who had died earlier in the year, who was very popular with the younger kids.  They called him Mr.Nathan and he was known for playing soccer out in the yard with whoever was there early for school.  “Play on” was something the kids remembered him saying as he encouraged them to keep moving.  This tribute installed on the fence was designed by another parent in the school who described it as her grief project.

There were some very moving elements in the service, including tributes from students, an adaptation of a Sarah McLaughlin’s “I will remember you” song into a rap that the kindergarten kids performed supported by the school choir.   The school choir held the ceremony together with a number of pieces.  Some kids were really struggling to get through the words which offered other kids a chance to accompany them with their own voices that could carry the song.  At the end of the ceremony the teachers tossed a bunch of beach balls into the crowd and the kids were able to run around for a bit.  Everyone was moved and at the end of the time I sensed a feeling of satisfaction that we had done a good thing by offering such a tribute to life that mattered to these young lives.

As I watched Mr. Nathan’s parents, I was glad that they were able to hear so  many examples of how their son had made a difference to these kids and how they would carry his memory.  I hope they took some comfort from that, I believe they did.

My daughter didn’t have a close relationship with Mr.Nathan, but she said she was glad to be a part of the service in the playground.  I believe that the organizers created a good opportunity for kids to support each other, where they got to see their teachers cry and hear their parents talk about their own grief.  It was okay to cry and be sad and there were lots of creative ways to respond and to remember.

There was a lot of teaching done that evening out on the playground.


Play On Mr. Nathan

Going back for those who have been forgotten

African Burial Ground National Monument New York City
May 2014


I’d like to think that the spirits of the ancestors drew our family to visit the site of the African Burial Ground National Monument.  Actually we could have used some guidance to help locate the site, as we weren’t sure what we were looking for following a snippet of information from a list of things to do in NYC.  I’d heard part of the story that a construction project in Lower Manhattan had unearthed a burial site in 1991, but I was curious to learn more.  We were surprised to find the exterior of the building looking like the rest of the office buildings in the area and we were greeted by the security screening that desecrates the threshold of all federal buildings. But once inside I was  aware that we were standing on holy ground before even reading the sign notifying us that “approximately 15,000 people are buried in this ground”.

AkindraIt was a thin place, open to spirit and rooted in the story of struggle. It drew us to pay attention and explore further. The ordinary office facade and the busy Manhattan street outside, faded away and we walked into a story of remembrance and resistance.  We learned that upon the discovery of human remains in what was likely an African burial site from colonial times, a movement of people led by African descendants organized to stop the construction and pay respect to the discovery.  It took an act of Congress to halt the construction and building plans were changed to provide space for a public memorial.

The remains of 419 people were excavated and transferred to Howard University for study.  I was interested to read what they learned about the burial practice at the time.  Bodies were wrapped in shrouds that were closed with straight pins. Sometimes there were small treasures included in the caskets, shells, buttons, beads.  Some had beaded belts around their waists.   Some caskets were marked with tacks with the  heart-shaped West African symbol of the  Sankofa, a bird with it’s head turned backwards, that is associated with the saying “it is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten”.  There is a powerful video reenactment of what a burial ceremony might have been, with a midwife/presider who stood at the grave and called to gathering “Are you here? Do you remember?”  “Yes” they call in response, “we remember X who was my….”.  “Ancestors” she cried, “we are here and we remember.” Our tears were rolling as we witnessed just a glimpse of this kind of meaningful presence at the graveside.  I’d love to muster up enough courage to invite similar responses in our gatherings today.  Except mostly we are NOT there and we DO NOT remember.


Just as the original burial act often stood as an act of defiance, these remains were finally re-buried in a bold expression of identity and resistance in a six-day Rite of Ancestral Return.  All were placed in hand-carved mahogany caskets from Ghana that were lined with Kente cloth.  The procession started at Howard University, through Baltimore, Philadelphia and on to New York City, where they were reinterred very near their original site.  The ground was marked with mounds of earth at this site.

The plaque underneath the casket reads: “The remains of every man, woman and child found during the excavation of the African Burial Ground were laid to rest again in coffins like this one.  The coffins were commissioned by the General Service Administration at the request of the descendant community.  They were made by artists and carpenters in Accra and Aburi, Ghana, using figurative designs and Adinkra symbols of the Akan people”. 

The museum that stands on the grounds today is an incredible tribute to the people who are buried there and the movements for liberation that were seeded by their lives.   The educational installations in the space are creative and interactive.   There are bold textiles and beautiful words inscribed on the wall, including these ones from Maya Angelou:

You may bury me in the bottom of Manhattan.  I will rise.  My people will get me.  I will rise out of the huts of history’s shame. 

I am grateful that we happened into this place where so much care and work has been invested to remember those who had been forgotten.

The mourners organize

Church of the Holy Trinity
August 2012

One Sunday at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto I was able to reflect on a familiar passage, Isaiah Isaiah 61: 1-4, and I found a new connection in light of mourning and organizing. I’ve always found significance in public expressions of grief that engage community, but when I read this passage  again and realized that it is the mourners who do the organizing and in doing so they find restoration, these actions took on new meaning for me.

The Spirit is upon me, anointed me;
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of Jubilee and the day of reckoning;
to comfort all who mourn;
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

(And listen here:)

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of God
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.

I’ve heard this reading so many times –  but I’ve never really heard before that it is the mourners here, who do the acting.

Remember and act, mourn and organize—it’s a wholistic call that is both personal and political. It’s a reminder to honour each life, say each name, grieve each lost future and comfort those who mourn. When we pay attention to our mourning, we feel like our will hearts break, and they will.  We are invited to do this with our whole heart, and then, to pick ourselves up, to pick each other up, and organize.

Act to expose the specific acts of violence, but also the values, beliefs, ideas, structures that allow violence to continue unabated. Act so it does not happen again.

In this persistent work we honour those who have died and bring change, something new out of sorrow. God transforms acts of mourning to acts of restoration for the whole community. Planted in their very sorrow is new life, new possibility. Through God’s promise, the wounded ones offer restoration to all.