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‘Before I die...’ blackboard makes its way to Town of Tonawanda cemetery

Nancy Weil has introduced laughter yoga, drum circles and the Heavenly Hearts Choir into her work as director of grief support services with the Catholic Cemeteries in the Buffalo Diocese.

Her boss, Carmen Colao, let Weil run with the ideas to help people work through mourning.

The latest pitch gave him pause. But Colao has watched in amazement this summer as visitors to Mount Olivet Cemetery in the Town of Tonawanda have pondered these words on two blackboards: “Before I die I want to _______.”

Hopes, dreams and prayers have spilled on to the boards in colored chalk.

“Change the world.”

“Spread love.”

“Serve my country.”

“Live sober.”

“Be a great mom.”

“When we come here, we tend to reflect on our own lives,” Weil said. “We tend to realize our days are limited.”

She learned about the blackboards online when stumbling onto, the site of a global public art project called “Before I die...”

Candy Chang posted the first installation in 2011 on an abandoned house in New Orleans, after the death of a loved one. It led to more than 1,000 such blackboards in more than 75 countries. Some have been up only a day, others much longer.

The first appeared in Western New York about three years ago on a vacant Fillmore Avenue property near the Central Terminal. A second, which remains, was installed two years ago in the middle block of Old Falls Street, near Niagara Falls State Park.

Boards have surfaced on a beach in Australia, a market in Japan, a college campus in Kazakhstan.

But in cemeteries? Not so much.

Some other responses on the blackboard in the Town of Tonawanda:

“Dance at my granddaughter’s wedding.”

“Swim with an otter.”

“Ride in a helicopter.”

“Be on Price is Right.”

Colao feared some might feel the blackboards were insensitive. He’s heard no complaints.

“The first week it was up, when within days someone put, ‘I want to have a living child,’ I knew we were giving people a place to express their emotions, their dreams, their desires,” Weil said.

There is room for 36 underlined messages on the two-sided blackboards at Mount Olivet, though anonymous authors have squeezed their thoughts between others and along the margins this summer.

One of the boards stands on the east side of the cemetery between Delaware and Elmwood avenues, across from St. Mary’s Section D; the other greets visitors inside the main gate on the west side of Elmwood, near a sculpture of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

When rain washes messages away, a box of chalk beckons others to share new longings.

“The grounds crew really embraced this thing and has done a great job with it,” Colao said.

Workers built the boards to specs outlined by Chang. Grounds foreman Charlie Cromwell is among those who monitor them daily. They’ve only had to erase one untoward comment – and a couple of musings about who someone would like to see in the White House come January.

“This is not a place for politics,” Weil said.

Bills – and even Jets – Super Bowl wins are another matter. Both those wishes have been expressed on boards in Western New York.

Colao and Weil look in the years to come to move the Catholic Cemeteries boards throughout the seven cemeteries the diocese operates. They said all visitors, of all faiths and backgrounds, are invited to share.

Weil has yet to spot anyone writing on the blackboards. She drives by in amazement on her way to and from her office on the Mount Olivet grounds as she sees the boards filled with aspirations. She regularly snaps photos so she can share them on the Catholic Cemeteries Buffalo Facebook page and during public speaking events.

The connections are real, powerful.

“It has impacted me so deeply to read what people want,” she said.

Colao, too, is among those who find themselves uplifted by the experience.

“This reaches people,” he said. “It gets them thinking. Things can get negative in our society today. It’s nice to see positive responses.”


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