On June 25, a memorial procession will make its way through the streets of Philadelphia’s Washington Square West. There will be funeral urns carried aloft, shrouds, ceremonial robes, and music.
But this will be no ordinary funeral march. In those urns will be the paper ashes of the names of people who died without a procession, some decades ago, too many unmourned and alone. They are among the thousands of Philadelphia area residents lost to AIDS.
“I think there’s a hunger in our communities today to say we have so much loss,” said Chris Bartlett, executive director of the William Way LGBT Community Center. “This ritual on the 25th is a collective opportunity whether you’re mourning friends, family, or community members who died during the AIDS epidemic or more recently during the COVID epidemic,” or from gun violence, “to fully say their names.”
Gone and For Ever, which includes the procession, is the next chapter of Remembrance, a multipart HIV/AIDs memorial begun last month by the William Way Center. Remembrance, which has the support of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, was created as an experience to be engaged with, not just viewed. And it focuses on the AIDS/HIV epidemic through a particularly Philadelphia lens.
Starting Tuesday, a preview exhibit of artwork and costumes featured in the procession will be held at the center. The exhibit will also have listening stations of work of Melvin Dixon, Christopher Coe, Reinaldo Arenas, writers who died in the early years of the epidemic. Their writing will be part of memorial ceremony.
Last month, the center hosted the premiere of These Don’t Easily Scatter, a play written and directed by Obie-winning playwright Ain Gordon for the Remembrance project.
The entire Remembrance project was intended to be an opportunity to remember those many people lost to AIDS and allow the city to mourn them, according to Bartlett.
“During the AIDS epidemic and through terrible years before the good treatments came out,” he said, “we lost people, two or three a week, and you just couldn’t give proper mourning to every single person who died because you had to move on to the next person.
“It was literally that you were in the hospital for one who passed, another person was very sick, and you were still grieving somebody who died a few weeks ago.”
This week’s Gone and For Ever events will feature original music and work by multiple artists, including Alex Stadler, a longtime Philadelphia artist who designed and directed this part of Remembrance and also created the urns.
Stadler has also been collecting the names of as many people from the Philadelphia area as possible who died from AIDS. The names will be written on pieces of paper, which will be burned. Their ashes will be placed in the urns that will be carried in the procession from the William Way Center to the Church of Saint Luke & the Epiphany.
The hope is that many people will join in the procession along its route.
An important part of Remembrance will be the digital archive to be launched in December.
The archive will include transcripts and recordings from the Remembrance community listening project as well as the ongoing Philadelphia AIDS Oral History Project.
Community activist Waheedah Shabazz-El, a longtime HIV survivor, led the project, which collected over 40 stories from January 2020 to December 2021 of individuals who died of AIDS told by people who knew them.
Shabazz-El, who is Goodwill Ambassador for Philadelphia FIGHT, a community health organization for people with HIV, said many people were willing to participate and share their memories.
“I didn’t realize how much grief there was in the community,” she said.
‘One of the misfits’
The Rev. Andrea Lamour-Harrington, a transgender minister who will be taking part in the June 25 blessing ceremony, told of the one holiday her friend, the late transgender performer Aigne’ Diamond, got hung up on three times by her family when she tried to call them.
“We had to spend the rest of Christmas holding her and supporting her. Because it was proven that day that she was one of the misfits. And we made sure that we backed her up and held her high. But she did not let that deter her. She kept thriving. She accomplished many things before she passed. And the one thing I love about her is, she was family to the end.”
Bill Adair, former Pew Center program director, told about a friend, Hunter Muir, who died from AIDS at age 25 in 1991. He worked at Adair’s favorite video shop, but when he got sick, he seemed to vanish.
“I called him at his mom’s house and talked to him once, right before he died,” Adair said. “And his voice was, you know, super soft. And we talked about movies. And I think, you know, I cried a bunch on the phone. And he did, too. And that was the last time I talked with him.” Adair was not invited to the service. “I don’t know if he even had one. And it was just this really bizarre experience of having someone just because of all the shame around HIV just kind of like disappeared from the universe.”
“It makes me really sad to this day,” Adair said.
Shabazz-El said there is inspiration as well in the histories.
“These were human beings. These were somebody’s children. These people had families. These people had lives before HIV, and they learned to live in the face of HIV. I think it’s important to have these archives because it’s a place to draw on some of these people’s strengths,” she said.
And it is all those people who are at the heart of Remembrance.
“We lost thousands of men and women to the AIDS epidemic,” Bartlett said. “We need to come together as a community, see the names of the people we lost, and have a moment to remember their stories.”
The William Way LGBT Community Center is located at 1315 Spruce St., Philadelphia. The preview exhibit for “Gone and For Ever” will be held at the center June 21 to 23, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., and June 24, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. On June 25, the Going Home Ceremony will begin at the center at 3 p.m. The public procession is expected to commence at 3:45 p.m. It will end with a blessing ceremony at the Church of Saint Luke and the Epiphany, 330 S. 13th St.