Bringing comfort at the end
For somebody who deals with death, Crystal Meneses possesses a contagious and enthusiastic personality and a knack for looking at the beauty of life.
It's part of life, they say, and Meneses wishes that more people thought about death and dying, both for peace of mind and to help others working through the isolation of impending passing. So, Meneses has organized a concert series through the Last Words Legacy Project to put a focus on the inevitable. The shows take place in the most appropriate places — cemeteries.
The Cemetery Concert Series will be held at four Portland-area, Metro-managed cemeteries in late August. A preview show was put on last weekend at Gresham Pioneer Cemetery.
They'll include concerts by Meneses and her Last Words band and singing group and support acts, as well as discussions about Metro's cemeteries, death and dying resources, a version of Meneses' Death Cafe that allows people to ask questions and a casket photo booth.
"This is not your typical concert series," said Meneses, who's a death doula, hospice chaplain and arts activist. It's been a project three years in the making and "this is the first (cemetery series) that we know of in the history of Oregon."
Indeed, it is an odd place to gather to hear music, but the subject obviously applies in cemeteries. Meneses said that Metro was receptive to allowing the concerts and permitted them to take place in an area of tranquility, reflection and quiet.
A Metro spokesperson said that it's looking forward to the concert series and appreciates Meneses' efforts to organize it. "I'm excited to have some events on the grounds again," said Emma Williams, Metro's Cemetery Program coordinator. "It's been so long, and I'm hopeful community members will be just as excited to attend. It's also cool because it's totally new for us. We have never had a choral group (perform at a cemetery) before. I'm going to attend the one at Lone Fir."
The schedule: Multnomah Park Cemetery, Southeast 82nd Avenue/Holgate Boulevard, Aug. 26; Jones Cemetery, Sylvan neighborhood, Aug 27; Lone Fir Cemetery, Buckman neighborhood, Aug. 28; Douglass Cemetery, Troutdale, Aug. 29. They are free to attend and people can brings snacks, drinks, a lawn chair, etc. For details, see www.Facebook.com/LastWordsLegacyProject.
Look around our world, and death and dying has been prevelant because of the COVID-19 pandemic — tragic, arguably preventable, sad, but certainly just another thing leading to loss of life. At the same time, Meneses said while it's the most difficult time of life, it's important to assist people to deal with the end.
"How can I bring community together and into places of death and change the narrative?" she said, of her concert series. "With the pandemic, we need to address death and dying more than ever. Globally we're experiencing grief."
Meneses said she initially wanted to plan a tour of Oregon cemeteries, but it didn't happen, at least this year. She remembers calling Silverton officials about a concert there, and a woman told her, "Well, we have a farmers market you could sing at," she said. "The reaction I got from people was they thought I was crazy."
Activities do happen in cemeteries, such as picnics and family gatherings. And, because some cemeteries have reached capacity, it can be used (tactfully, appropriately) as open space and "keep the stories alive," Meneses said.
"Metro wants cemeteries to be places of community," she added.
Meneses has written songs about death and dying, performed by the Last Words band and including different genres — folk, hip hop, dance, vaudeville and Broadway musical. "A lot of them are sad, but they're meant to be comforting," she said. "I hope people are crying and dancing." Some song titles: "Regret," about working through regret and forgiveness; "Body," about loving your body and being in the present; "Only Love," inspired by letters of surviving friends and family members.
Meneses said it's satisfying to assist dying people. She uses music and conversation and a calming presence.
"How every person dies is often how every person is birthed into the world — there's no same story," she said. "How we grieve is also that way. One thing I've learned, for sure a belief that I have, is that we need each other and community at the end of life.
"Even though we grieve differently, we need each other to remind each other about the human bonds we need. Some folks are ready; sometimes people have visions of a loved one passed on waiting for them. Dying can be very uncomfortable and painful, but folks experiencing that can be ready to go."
Meneses has organized Death Cafe sessions for many years, literally people gathering to discuss death and dying over cake and more. A popular topic is what happens after we die.
"Energy can't die," Meneses said. "You can't kill energy. We are energy. I have this belief that we still are energy, just transforming." As a death doula and hospice chaplain, she comforts people of all religious backgrounds.
As far as the Cemetery Concert Series, Meneses would like to make it an annual thing and "that's what Metro wants also," she said.
"This is breaking the ground," she added.
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