One of my most difficult challenges working at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary over the years has been expanding my understanding of the space to include others’ ideas and visions for it. Even before the land was purchased, a significant part of that vision was to create a natural setting that would support both people and wildlife. More specifically, the Sanctuary is a space where living and dying can be witnessed in a safe and kind container. And during services, all of us on staff work hard to hold that sacred space.
So, with the intention of supporting people of all (or no) faiths, how do we determine what is sacred? It has been difficult for me to put a clear definition of this in place, and in my own reflection, I’m not sure that I want to define it; nonetheless it has proven itself to be of great importance to all who come to the Sanctuary. I know that one important quality of what makes it sacred space is intention. During a burial, Caroline, Cassie and I intentionally create and hold the space of the grave site so that the family members of the deceased are able to have and process their own experiences. It is also our shared intention for the entire property, that it be a space of calm and ease, safety and beauty. And it is my personal intention that this be true for the wildlife as well as the human beings who need and use this space.
One difficulty I have faced in this endeavor is how kindness is or can be expressed when cutting down plants or applying herbicides. Because of the conservation work that we do, there seems to be an opposition between native plants and exotic or non-native plants, as well as between invasive plants (those with aggressive growth habits that tend to easily outcompete many others) and non-invasives. And then, there is the question of human use of the land including the clearing work that is done for burials. So many seeming contradictions have arisen in me around how to manage the land as both a wildlife refuge with biodiverse habitats, and as a cemetery and public park for people. I would not be truthful if I said that it has been easy in either the scope nor in my understanding of the work.
A few things have taught me ways of allowing these difficulties to arise and how to be with them. Coming back to intentions, it is mine to refrain from harming life, unnecessarily. I recently had that challenged when it came to cutting down a Sycamore tree that was growing right next to our concrete pad. It is a native tree, and I had thus resisted cutting it down when it was very small. As it grew taller, it posed an increasing threat to the concrete (which we intend to use for a timber frame pavilion for celebrations) and restricted the space between a well used golf cart trail and the concrete. This tree was never, during our use of the land, going to have the opportunity to grow to be a mature adult tree. I finally came to terms with this and sawed it off just above the ground, and treated the stump with herbicide so that it wouldn’t coppice. Of course it wasn’t personal for the tree, and there is no indication that the tree would hold any ill-will back to me, but the build up of thoughts and emotions around what I was doing with invasive species management got some release when I applied it to the Sycamore. In fact, the ability for me to release the ideas of any of the plants as bad or wrong as well as my actions to kill them being bad or wrong, opened up a way to reconcile the ever shifting balance between restoring native habitats and creating a space to include humans.
I also realized that I had been doing this all along when preparing grave sites or maintaining trails. I have been looking for things as I mow, and if possible, preserving some of the natural beauty of the land around a grave instead of just bringing the whole area down to bare earth. I try to leave flowers, small trees, shrubs, ferns, and anything else in the space that belongs there, that is beautiful, and isn’t intruding on our use of the space for a burial service. And I do my best in other ways to be intentional about the space, like only clearing the space needed for the expected gathering so that the rest of the surrounding habitat is relatively undisturbed. This sort of allowance for humans to be a part of this natural space seems to be an element of sacredness as well.
Then there is the kindness part of the space that expands to hold all of the inner struggles that folks might bring with them to a burial. Whatever their inner experience may be around the loss of a loved one, there is equal opportunity to express or not express thoughts and feelings with a group of friends and loved ones. There is time to process these thoughts and feelings, there are ritualized elements of the burial in which those who are willing can participate, and there is no judgement or recourse from the Sanctuary staff about how that experience might be for any one person. All are welcomed, all are accepted, and all can choose their own level of comfort in participation. At a recent burial, it was hot, and there was a potential time crunch for our guests for after burial lunch plans. The deceased person had already been lowered into the grave, and the opportunity arose for guests to assist in closing the grave, if they wanted. Not everyone was inclined to do so, but there were many present who very much did want to help, and without rushing to finish, there was still time for the entire gathering to make it to lunch together. Many expressed their gratitude for the opportunity to participate, and that piece of being connected with the experience made them a part of that sacred space as well.
Finally, through my work at Carolina Memorial Sanctuary, I have found that what also makes the space sacred is a knowing that the land will not be disturbed in the future by the careless activities of humans. People coming to work at the Sanctuary know that it is a cemetery and so can treat it accordingly. One of our contractors went so far as to stick tall yellow flags in the ends of burial mounds so that he wouldn’t accidentally run his brush hog and tractor over them. This Steward is also not walking over burial mounds or driving heavy machinery over them either. I do certainly run the weed eater over the areas that need extra attention, and I will use hand trimmers and other tools to cut things that need not be growing out of graves, but otherwise, I allow the regrowth to occur, which I have personally found to be healing for the grief processes in me. It feels good knowing that a body that has died is making new life above it possible. I don’t presume to know what others think or feel about it, but in caring for the life that is present at the Sanctuary, I feel grateful to those whose loved ones helped make it possible for them to come and rest in our cemetery.
In every task I do at the Sanctuary, there is the intention to allow the natural experience of the space itself to hold tenderly, all that arrives there.