Dearly Departed

The All Souls' Procession creatively honors those who have passed on.

I've been trying, futilely, to locate a short story I read not long ago, a haunting story about a city populated by the dead. Once people die, they reside in this city, find jobs, make friends, and continue in this way from day to day for years, or decades, or in some cases centuries. But eventually, inevitably, one by one, they disappear--precisely at the moment there is no one left on Earth who remembers them.

That story, like its characters, is lost, but not forgotten. It continues to exist for me even though I've apparently recycled the magazine in which it appeared. All I have to do is call the story to mind. Yet it vanishes whenever I'm not engaged in a conscious act of remembrance.

Similarly, the dead will walk alongside us when we commemorate them in the annual All Souls' Procession through downtown Tucson this Saturday night.

Now, the parade is not a Halloween spookfest, nor is it a drunken revelry, like Fourth Avenue during the Final Four. Explains Flam Chen's Paul Weir, one of the event's organizers, "People create ritual objects, masks, puppets, altars, all sorts of things, and bring them out in celebration of loss and gain, the living and the dead. We try to curb the party atmosphere a little bit. For us, it's a ceremony, and for me it's a ceremony bordering on a funeral; two ex-members of Flam Chen died in the past year, and my mother just passed away. So this will be a chance to release some grief and sadness."

You don't have to join Weir in some harmonized dirge, though. As you would expect from an event inspired by Mexico's Dia de los Muertos celebration, the All Souls' Procession is lively and colorful, and emphasizes creativity. Grinning death's head masks and makeup abound, as do hand-crafted art and live music. Last year's procession set out with 1,000 participants, but by the end of the parade, as many as 4,000 people were involved, either walking or gliding on non-motorized vehicles, like skateboards. "Stepping into the street can be a hard line for some people to cross," says Weir, "but people can at least watch, and everybody can come to the show at the end."

That show will be a grand finale by Flam Chen, the performing artists who mix fire with movement and pantomime. Weir and fellow Flam Chen leader Nadia Hagen caution that people should not think of the procession as something to do until the Flam Chen performance starts; the two attractions are integral. Indeed, in the 1990s, the Flam Chen troupe grew out of performances conceived especially for the procession.

The finale includes a performance by the Spirit Group, a community ensemble structured by Butoh dancers Antonio and Heather Joy. There will also be a burning sculpture built by Ismist, who has created several burning sculptural installations in the past and is also contributing a large skeletal dragon puppet to the parade. The idea of the burning sculpture is that participants can write the names of people they want to remember or things they want to let go of emotionally onto slips of paper, and toss the paper into the flames.

The procession will begin at Muse, at Fifth Avenue and Sixth Street, head north a couple of blocks then shift over to Fourth Avenue. Participants will advance south on Fourth, dip through the underpass (keep height restrictions in mind if you're carrying tall structures or big puppets), then proceed west on Congress to Scott, where a right turn will take them north to Alameda and a complex maneuver at Sixth Avenue, where they will flow through the underpass then swing back around and follow Toole to the loading docks at Stone. Everyone will assemble there for the finale.

The entire production is budgeted at $12,000, which comes from private donations, benefit events, a series of puppet workshops, and grants from the Tucson/Pima Arts Council and Arizona Commission on the Arts.

That's significant growth since 1990, when local artist Susan Johnson recruited some friends to honor her deceased father with a ritualistic performance piece inspired by Dia de los Muertos festivities. This year, the event--which could attract 5,000 participants--is being organized by a coalition of downtown artists and groups, including Flam Chen, Tucson Puppetworks, the Mat Bevel Institute, Molehill Orkestrah, Solar Culture and BICAS.

"It's grown because so many people think the procession is important, but for their own personal reasons," says Hagen. "For me, when I lose people in my life, there are usually funerals, but that isn't enough for me to get to a resolved place. The parade, in its energy and number of people and movement through the streets, helps that process along. Doing this in public helps me to grieve privately.

"When we walk in this procession, we really do feel that the people who've gone on to the other side are still with us. The loss doesn't seem so great, because you feel they're there, and you haven't fully lost them."

Despite all this talk of death, the procession is precisely the opposite of a line of cars with their headlights on, snaking toward a cemetery. Leave your widow's weeds at home.

"One of my favorite costumes I've seen over the years," says Hagen, "was when this woman lost her cat, so she made a cartoon bubble-cloud that she wore around her head, with an image of her cat on it. You can have emotions like humor and happiness in the face of loss, not just anger and sadness."

"But it's not an opportunity to be as freaky as you can be," says Weir. "It's an opportunity to connect with people you've lost, and face mortality."