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The diverse audience of the dead

Insight through Diversity - A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Grief and Ritual for D2KDay - Dying to Know Day

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Photo: D2KDay

04 August 2017

I have been invited to a panel, Insight through Diversity - A Cross-Cultural Exploration of Grief and Ritual for D2KDay - Dying to Know Day.

Four of us representing, Chinese, Greek, Arabic and Kenyan ancestries will discuss cultural and personal death and funereal rituals and grief. I guess our religious/spiritual beliefs, or lack of, will also impact on our cultural identities.

D2KDAY is run by Groundswell Project, which develops arts and health programs on dealing with death and dying.

A panel of "important people," my late mother, Barbara, would have said to her peers. She never knew who these 'important' people were, or what they did.
"Fotis, he's a professor," she'd say to her friends when I was younger.
"God… stop it!" I'd yell.
"Who cares, do you think they know?" she'd say.

Migration needs achievement. As my late-father would say whenever I fucked up at school, "What the hell did we come here for?"
My father, Anastasios died twenty-five years ago. Thankfully a friend of mine, a doctor, who also tragically died at his mid-40s, was at the hospital that last night administer levels of morphine to finally end the pain and ease that terror on his face brought on by advanced liver cancer.

Barbara's Alzheimer's snuck up on her the five years before she died. It was not debilitating in fact it eased much of her status anxiety, she just wanted to have fun. She walked, she groomed herself loved the 'club' as she'd call her Greek Seniors activity program, and never left the house without her blood red lipstick and steeped in Oscar de la Renta's Ruffles.

My mother and father, like so many dead, have become ghosts in my Facebook feed. Algorithmic reminders. Every time I think of disembarking from Facebook I wonder if Facebook is curated by Hades, and we the living dip into the underworld to see and greet our dead, maybe not.

In working up a narrative for the panel I came to a sharp, if not sudden, realisation that the whole post WWII generation of immigrants in Australia, my elders, are either already dead, or dying.

Over the last 30 to 40 days, (an important period after Orthodox/Catholic, Jewish and Muslim funerals), I have been to one Spanish Catholic and two Greek funerals for friend's parents.

Over the last two years I have attended an additional three Greek funerals. I am off to another funeral of the father of a friend, Greek, on Friday.
My wife has been to two Spanish funerals this last week alone. In fact my partner found out she was pregnant at her mother's funeral 15 years ago.
I know of Lebanese, Indian and Anglo friends - of various faiths – in my age group that have lost parents over the last few years. There is no structural discrimination in death.

However, the idea that a generation of migrants, Greek, Italian, ex-Yugoslavian, Polish, Maltese, and others, is dying is important to note. I am sure in ten to fifteen years Vietnamese, Lebanese and others will face this reality, if they are not already. In time, more Middle Eastern, African, and recently arrived communities will face the end of a generation. The Jewish community lost most of the post Holocaust generation which arrived here in the late 1940s. So the wheel turns.

In last great wave of mass migration 1949 to 1972 three million immigrants and refugees arrived. My elders built the Snow Mountain Hydro Scheme, cleaned offices and hospitals, worked in Holden and Ford, laid down roads and train tracks, grew vines and made wine, ran milk bars and fish shops, made prosciutto and spanakopita, worked in kitchens, gave Australians coffee, they tailored suits and made dresses, they became union organisers, and owned businesses, some built empires. Many also lost much. They lost their youth knowing with the word wogs etched in the psyche. They ended up with broken backs, diabetes, a house and a pension. Others lost their children as many of my generation were racked by heroin, alcohol and gambling addictions. If you're not a successful, or a good wog, then you slip off the community's precipice.

Yet, for every argument about identity and representation, or diversity of audiences in the arts, I do not need a research report to know the vast majority of this legion of the dead and dying did not receive their 'invitation to the party', as Donna Walker Kuhne would say.

So, they made their own arts and media. They created newspapers and radio stations, places of worship, a myriad of festivals, many good and bad theatres, lots of music and dance ensembles, a swell of poets and writers groups. A few were even performed on and off the mainstream. Not many.
The Italians gave birth to what was to be renamed the Melbourne International Arts Festival, the Spoleto Melbourne – Festival of the Three Worlds under the stewardship of Gian Carlo Menotti, 1986-88. It was the first arts festival in Australia to be part of network including, Spoleto, Italy, and Charleston, United States. It was a unique model. The State Government in 1990 caught flatfooted took it away from the Italians and 'mainstreamed' it. Washed it off, cleaned it up.

Mum and dad took me to see lots of Greek local theatre and Greek films.

Mum took me to see Tommy in 1975 when I was thirteen. This is a time when many Greek mothers were breaking their teen children's Bowie LPs and burning their tight jean flares, in fear that they may morph into Australian, take drugs, or become gay. Of which all of us did some, or all of the three. I'm not sure it was Bowie's fault though.

Barbara was young, in her 30s, with knee-high black leather boots and tight burnt orange knit dress. She'd remind everyone she met in the fog of her Alzheimer's that she was once a "beautiful woman."

Death is for us a sort of festivals the rituals surrounding death are art. Even as an atheist I meditate and can reach ecstasy when I hear excellent Byzantine Chant. I drift away by the puffs of burning frankincense resin. I am intrigued and mesmerised by the Byzantine icons, formulaic, ethereal weighted with symbolism and depictions of otherness. A methodology close to 1800 years old of gold leaf, hairstyle, body position, clothing, and background details totally formulated yet, each iconographer may imbue the icon with personal meaning, skill and approach. The ritual of death in the Greek Orthodox faith is a multi-art performance. No wonder the iconoclastic Protestants and Evangelists, hated the sensuality of the Greek Orthodox ritual and may now be trying to invent rituals. Not sure.

All I know is that a whole generation is dying. As the newspaper The Truth in 1933 "The muddy stream flows to Australia from Greece, Malta and Levant".

One thing is clear death is very democratic. Hades is a pluralist democracy it takes all. Let's hope that the funded arts do not forget more generations of audiences, just as they forgot most of my elders for the last 70yrs.

*D2KDAY@Fedsquare is the 2017 flagship event taking place at Federetion Square, Melbourne CBD on Tuesday 8 August 2017. To find out more go to www.dyingtoknowday.org/d2kdayfedsquare or contact Jessie from The GroundSwell Project on 0449117824. Email: jessie@thegroundswellproject.com

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