Beautiful. Transformational. Healing. A funeral can actually be all three of those things, when families and friends are invited to participate in the process.
I love my job SO MUCH. I get to help promote and practice a way of burial that is kind to the earth. I get to help care for and conserve a beautiful piece of land. I get to help support and grow an important project that supports my community. But the part I love the most and the part I find most compelling about what we offer, are the burials. They are beautiful, transformational, and healing. I have witnessed this time and time again and I have experienced it first hand.
The first burial at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary was in July of 2016. Kathy Jennings was diagnosed with terminal cancer and knew that she wanted to be buried at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary. Kathy had taken the Home Funeral & Death Care Midwife Training offered by Center for End of Life Transitions, and chose a home funeral for herself. In her final weeks, friends and family supported her through her process by caring for her emotionally, physically, and spiritually – and when death came and it was time to transition, the community came to the home to help. Kathy’s body was lovingly shrouded and cared for and laid out in the home, so friends and family members could be with her one last time and could support each other through their grief.
It was Sunday, the day of the burial, when Kathy’s body was driven from her home by her loved ones in a Subaru hatchback to Carolina Memorial Sanctuary. Using an EMS canvas carrier, Kathy’s loved ones carried her shrouded body to the grave site, followed by a stream of loved ones. When they arrived to her spot, they gently placed her beside the open earth and gathered around. A family friend lead the service, and other friends and family members were invited to share their memories or to read something that felt meaningful. Flowers were placed on Kathy’s body and friends and family held each other in smiles and tears.
It was time to lower Kathy’s body into the grave. Friends and family were invited to participate, and with the guidance of Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, helped to gently lowered her into the earth. Now inside the grave, her death was becoming even more real, as people stood in silence, listening to the sounds of nature around them.
And now for the closing. Though it is not required that guests participate, shovels were ready for anyone who wanted to help close the grave. Kathy’s daughter elected to use her bare hands and took a scoop of earth and placed it on her mother’s shrouded body. Kathy’s husband took up a shovel and began the process of gently placing earth into the grave. Slowly, one by one, other loved ones approached and helped to close Kathy’s grave. One young girl in particular was very inspired, and with a small red shovel, helped from start to finish. When the grave was closed, a mound resulted, which was decorated with wildflowers. Those who felt like helping were offered the opportunity and everyone present got to see the grave closing come to its completion. It was final. It was sad. But also beautiful.
To physically help and watch a grave be closed is like nothing else. For most conventional funerals, you might see the casket lowered into the grave but you will not see it closed. And you certainly don’t get to help. This might sound like a minor difference, but the difference is profound! I know this not only from witnessing it over and over, but from experiencing it myself.
My stepmother, who was also my mentor and the most influential person to affect my life, became my parent at age 12. In May of 2017, she died of terminal breast cancer at age 62. As she was getting near the end, she saw the video we made showing aerial footage of Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, and decided on the spot that she wanted her ashes to be buried at the Sanctuary. Though very weak, she came out and picked a spot near McDowell Creek. It brought her so much joy that she took pictures that she shared with her friends of her final resting place. Less than 2 months later, she had died and plans were made for her burial. A few days prior to the burial, I dug her grave by hand. With every shovel of earth, I thought of my stepmother and how grateful I was that she would be at the Sanctuary and that I could come and visit her. The day of her burial, our family gathered, and my two brothers, father, and I took turns mixing her ashes in the soil amendment that we use to make it safe for plantings. We placed the mixture into the grave and then her friends who were present helped scoop earth into the grave. As we neared the end, we planted a flame azalea in her memory. Afterward, each person present took a yellow rose – her favorite – and placed it in a ring around the flame azalea. My father, a very conservative guy and a little skeptical of the process, was surprised and deeply moved by how beautiful it was. It’s something he talks about still.
Burying your loved one might be your final act of love. There you are at the grave filled with a deep sadness. And instead of just watching, you get to help. There’s something about the physicality of it. The death is becoming more real with every scoop of earth. You get to watch and get to help close the grave. You see it. You see it… This person you loved so much, you see their grave come to a close, and in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise, you get a sense of closure. Yes, the grief is still there, but something inside of you feels lighter. Somewhere in your mind, you know it’s actually real. And while you’re doing this, the earth is beneath your feet and in your hands. Trees, and mountains, and wind surround you. And you are held by your community as you come together to return someone who was so dear to you, back into the earth.
Photos of Kathy Jennings: Meghan Rolfe Photography
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