How to Organize a Memorial or Celebration

by Lisa Strawn

From PHN Issue 30, Fall 2016

I’m writing to give people in prison advice on how to put together a memorial or celebration. In June, I put together a Celebration of Life for the Orlando shooting victims at the facility where I’m housed.

Why a Celebration of Life

On June 12, a gunman burst into a popular gay bar called Pulse in Orlando, Florida, and killed 49 people. Most of those killed were Latino and Black LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people. I was in my cell when I heard the news. I cried the whole day. The LGBT folks were deeply affected here. I knew I had to do something.

The reason for a Celebration of Life is because they were in a club, laughing and dancing. And in an instant, that joy faded to darkness for those 49 lives. In the midst of the darkness, we are now the light. Not just as the LGBT community, but as human beings who are here together to stand for Equality and Love. I wanted to make it a day to reflect and remember the 49 lives taken too soon. Everything that they stood for as human beings can and will live on forever.

Within three days, I had the program together.

How to Put Together an Event

First piece of advice: Have a passion for what you are trying to do. You have to be able to sell your ideas.

Then have an agenda. If you want people to speak, sing, or participate in any way, try to get people on board that you can count on.

Take your ideas to a warden, superintendent, or chaplain. I took my idea about the Celebration of Life for the Orlando 49 to our facility chaplain. He was inspired. And in one hour, we came up with an agenda and put it in order.

Next, the chaplain ran it by the administration and chief medical doctor. They all were on board with the idea.

I found someone who is also incarcerated here to do the flyers, sign-up sheets and programs for the celebration.

Set a date for the event. Put up flyers about what your service or celebration is about. And sign-up sheets for other incarcerated people who want to attend. We have a ducat system here. So you have to sign up for events.

I was able to have four different groups to sing and have staff participate, because I had a passion for this. So everyone wanted to be on board with me.

I set up practice time for those who were going to sing. I asked one of the ministers for three hours of practice. That’s all I needed, because the people I asked knew what to do.

Since this was a celebration of life, I got the LGBT community together, and we made cards for the Orlando LGBT Center, to be sent to them. I had over 100 cards collected and put them on a table for everyone at the celebration to see.

Also, the LGBT groups made a Pride sign and a Pride rainbow. Anyone can make a poster. Most prisons have an art department, or just put your art on paper and have it out at the service.

In a matter of nine days, I had an idea, agenda, flyers and sign-up sheets, music, speakers and a place, one of the chapels, to hold the event.  

All staff were notified, and ducats went out on the 30th. July first, we celebrated the lives of the 49. Our program was done in an hour and 15 minutes, with great support from staff and people incarcerated here.

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