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  • Writer's pictureSheree Hoddinett

Mixing the Elements of Life & Death 

Leah Cotterell and Narelle McCoy will perform Whistling Past the Graveyard at this year’s Moreton Bay Anywhere Festival. During their performance, Leah and Narelle will draw from their written memoirs and academic research to reflect on funerals, from the truly sad to the sublime and uplifting. The music is as eclectic as the subject matter, ranging from classical and folk songs to emblematic pop songs and of course, together they will sing Amazing Grace.

 

Who knew there was an entertainment factor in cemeteries, a place many find a little on the spooky side? Enter Leah Cotterell and Narelle McCoy, the duo behind Whistling Past the Graveyard, a performance offering the unique thrill of sharing stories and songs with the community in the beautiful surrounds of Moreton Bay’s historic cemeteries and one you’ll get to witness as part of this year’s Anywhere Festival.


Whistling Past the Graveyard – Leah Cotterell and Narelle McCoy.

Anywhere Festival Moreton Bay has been designed to make your weekends more vibrant and memorable with creative experiences for you, your family and friends to enjoy. From May 9 to 26, talented performers from Moreton Bay and beyond will bring you an assortment of entertainment, including:


  • theatre

  • dance

  • comedy

  • musical theatre

  • circus

  • immersive installations

  • storytelling

  • cabaret

  • classical and swing music.


There are free and ticketed performances spread throughout the City of Moreton Bay.


After debuting to a great response at the historic South Brisbane Cemetery at last year’s festival, this year will see the Whistling Past the Graveyard team performing at Lawnton and Samford cemeteries to weave in stories about these atmospheric sites.


Leah and Narelle share quite a history. They first met at the Queensland Conservatorium, where Leah was working on her doctorate (studying music and emotion) and Narelle was lecturing on music history. But they knew each other indirectly, as actors and singers in the wider theatre scene in Brisbane in the 1980s, sharing friends in common. Their own personal stories and academic interests in exploring death, dying and funerals are what led them down the path of Whistling Past the Graveyard.


“Narelle and I share an abiding interest in how funerals have a role in managing death and grief and the big challenges we face in letting people go,” Leah says. “Narelle’s PhD research has been focused on Irish funeral rituals, keening (a special form of singing for the dead) and ‘the merry wake’ and Narelle grew up in a big Irish Catholic family in Ipswich. She tells wonderful stories about McCoy family funerals.


“My postgraduate study explored my own experience of complicated, chronic grief, as a family carer for people with serious, chronic mental illnesses. My story is about enduring great love and loss.


“The show is easygoing and uplifting by design. We feel that death has been stigmatised, that our culture is not good at dealing with the inevitabilities of ageing, loss, grief and death. By talking, singing, laughing and crying about it together, we hope to do our little bit to bring some ease to the conversation. What ultimately inspired the performance is a belief that sharing stories about death and dying is liberating, and that a good funeral is important for the health and wellbeing of the community.”


Despite their unusual idea, audiences are very receptive to their show, with people fascinated by the idea of singing and performing in cemeteries. It all begins with volunteer ushers dressed in mourning clothes settling the audience into the space with music performed by guitarist Jamie Clark.


“Narelle and I see this performance as part of a wider project. We want to go on exploring the art of music and death. We think there is a lot of life in our project!” – Leah

“The performance is a frisky mix of stories about funerals, the good ones and the hard ones, the unusual and the sad ones, mixed up with Narelle’s stories about drinking whiskey with old Irish ladies to learn about the traditional rituals of village funerals and my own research on how music and songs create a safe place for our emotions,” Leah explains.


“We sing songs throughout, from traditional Irish folk to emblematic pop songs and finally together we all sing Amazing Grace. By the end of the show, we hope that everyone will feel easier about their own experiences, preferences and plans.


“For these shows in the Anywhere Festival Moreton Bay program, we’ll be weaving in a few elements of local history research about the Lawnton and Samford Cemeteries. We were very lucky to receive Regional Arts Development Funding from the City of Moreton Bay Council to allow us to plan the production and research and write new material.”


It’s hard to imagine finding a cemetery a magical place to perform, but for Leah and Narelle the experience fills them with gratitude.


“These are public spaces and so the people who care for them are giving us all a chance to experience them in a new way - celebrating the many lives known and unknown, all the people who went before us, both remembered and forgotten,” Leah shares. “Being together in the space, we can’t help thinking about what it means to be alive. That’s why the show harks back to that old idea of whistling past the graveyard, holding on to our good luck because the proximity of death strengthens our grip on life. And by the time the audience have settled into the space, there’s so much atmosphere in these places, the sense of being connected to the group, the connections between all the members of the group, feel really strong. That makes performance really satisfying.”


Leah’s love of singing is deep, having won a talent quest at a young age, she knew it was something that would always be a part of her life. Tying it in with her research was the next natural step.


“In my masters (2015) and my doctoral study (2021) I’ve tried to find a way to talk about the powerful connections that we make through music and singing, connections that mainly operate under the level of our awareness,” Leah says. “When we talk about music as being magical - it’s the magic that I have tried to understand. Music in the funeral ritual has a special power I think. That’s why it’s a natural subject for me to explore.


“Narelle and I see this performance as part of a wider project. We want to go on exploring the art of music and death. We think there is a lot of life in our project!”


Whistling Past the Graveyard is on May 26 at 10.30am at Lawnton Cemetery and 3.30pm at Samford Cemetery. Bookings can be made via anywhere.is/series/whistling-past-the-graveyard/


For further information about Anywhere Festival and other performances, visit anywhere.is/moretonbay/

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