It was a library of death. Corridors leading nowhere were lined with thousands of urns containing human cremains, stacked side-by-side like books on a shelf. Some of the urns were accompanied by portraits: pictures of couples when they were young paired with pictures of the same couples when they had reached old age. In one of the spaces there was a small statue of a boat piloted by the grim reaper. In another there was a Father’s Day tribute to someone’s long dead dad, expressing how much he was missed.
And then, juxtaposed with all this gloomy seriousness, there were musicians. They were tucked into various nooks and corners within this labyrinth, playing up-beat folk music, experimental electronic music, singing choral pieces. There was a theremin. There were horns and drums. As we rounded each corner, aimlessly wandering and browsing, we would stumble upon yet another performer, surrounded by onlookers, crowded so thick that it was often difficult to even see who was making the music.
This was the Garden of Memory, a yearly event held at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, CA in celebration of the Summer Solstice. The Chapel of the Chimes was founded in 1909, and still serves as a crematorium and as a columbarium; a place where the ashes of the dead are housed and memorialized. The idea to use this as a setting for an avant garde musical event was hatched in 1995 by a writer for the East Bay Express newspaper, and now thousands of people flock here to wander the hallways, socialize and listen to strange music each summer.
My wife and I attended this event for the first time this year at the suggestion of a friend. When it was first described it to us, I was a bit dumbfounded. What a strange idea for a concert! I couldn’t image that this would be the sort of thing that would attract many people, given the macabre setting. I supposed that, since most people like to avoid thinking too much about death and mortality, this would be the sort of thing that maybe a handful of folks would find freakishly appealing. But in fact, on this particular day it seems that the living outnumbered the dead at the Chapel of the Chimes.
As might be expected, alternative and hipster types were present in large numbers. There was a legion of Dr. Marten boots, lots of unnaturally colored hair, tattoos and piercings. There were big bushy beards on many of the young men, and dreadlocks on many of the young women. But there were also lots of children, senior citizens and just plain normal looking middle-aged folks. It was a far more culturally diverse crowd than I would have expected to find at an experimental music concert held in a crematorium!
As the three of us wandered about the event for two and a half hours, I began to realize that the music all around was acting like a buffer keeping the omnipresent reminders of death comfortably at bay. We would watch some musicians and then peruse some of the urns. Our conversations would turn to the topic of our own deaths, and then we would be distracted by the sounds of a flurry of horns. Wandering down a corridor lined with memorial plaques, we would meditate on human finitude, and then emerge into a crowd of people, appreciatively taking in the sounds of an amplified guitar. This quick and continuing fluctuation between images of death and life ultimately left me with a feeling of calm. Looking around me – at my wife, my friend, the thousands of strangers among whom we were engulfed – I had a sense of how all of us, packed into this building devoted to death, shared the same condition. We all will eventually die, and this might be a something like a preview of what it looks like in the afterlife.