Cemeteries Used to be Creepy Places

Robin Botie of Ithaca, New York, photoshops a scene at Greensprings Natural Cemetery in Newfield, New York of a naural burial.“Bunny, bunny, bunny, bunny, bunny … ” we kids used to chant as we rode past the endless gravestones of the huge cemeteries of Queens and Brooklyn. We held our breaths hoping to convince the angel of death, who hung out in such places, that we were too young to die. Such places. Creepy. Wretched-scary landscapes of stones crammed close, with carved-out names of ghosts spooking you from every direction. As soon as I learned about cremation, I knew I’d rather be burned off the planet than be stuck in such a place for eternity.

Over years of travels to island countries and other continents, I peeked through fences at more inviting burial grounds. Always from a distance. Then, last week, I followed my friend’s body to Greensprings Natural Cemetery in Newfield, New York. In lush rolling hills bordered by forests, the place looked more like a nature preserve than a cemetery. There were no gravestones. No concrete mausoleums. No strange men in black penguin suits. The staff was indistinguishable from the mourners. I expected my dead friend to be hidden away in the depths of a coffin. But there was no coffin. Instead, her un-embalmed body had been neatly wrapped, swaddled in white cloth and tied like a big fancy bar of soap. Like an ancient Egyptian mummy. It was very obviously my friend inside. Her size and shape, and something about her character, were discernible through the shroud. She was gently carried from hearse to cart, and we all walked with her through moist green grass to a small clearing in a meadow.

A hole had been dug and was lined with boughs of pine. Family and friends gathered close under the tent to read poems and share memories. Then, together, mourners and staff lowered the fresh wood board holding the body, onto the bed of pine branches. People placed chocolates and cookies over my friend. And flowers cut from her garden. We took turns shoveling some of the soil over her. Here, she would complete the cycle of life, helping to give back to and restore the land.

It was okay that it was raining. It felt peaceful. Safe. If my voice choked or cracked it wouldn’t matter. So, moved by the simple beauty of the moment, I sang. My friend had wanted to hear me play Taps on the bugle, but she’d died before I could learn the notes. Instead, I sang the words to Taps.

And though I’m not one to visit cemeteries or gravesites, I’m planning to come back to this beautiful spot in the hills at Greensprings. For my first performance, when I can play Taps for my friend. And maybe, even, for the last stop in my journey here on earth.

 

What are your plans for after you die? Might you consider an ecologically sound burial?

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4 thoughts on “Cemeteries Used to be Creepy Places

  1. Elaine Mansfield

    Beautiful. I didn’t know about Greensprings when Vic was cremated or we might have changed our choice. Now I’ll be cremated to join his ashes in the forest–another way, although less ecologically sound, to feed the land.
    I never thought of cemeteries as creepy places. A cemetery was part of the church where my grandparents worshiped. I went with them as a child and after the service while families gathered for a meal (it was a country church, so it was a social gathering as well as a religious one), we kids played in the cemetery. Then I got months of cemetery experience in Rochester at Mount Hope because it was the closest walking place to Strong Hospital and they plowed all winter. I spent an hour a day there, often vising Susan B. Anthony’s grave and Frederick Douglas and wondering at the history of the place, the ancient trees, the huge graves for babies, and the flocks of crows. I want to visit Greensprings sometime. It seems like the best choice., so I’m glad your friend brought you there. I love the tradition of swaddling the dead–and it still hurts that my sister-in-law wouldn’t let me do that for my brother.

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    1. Robin Botie Post author

      Oh yes, Elaine. I remember walkiong through Mount Hope Cemetery as well. Except, not having your very friendly experience with cemeteries in my past, I walked along, whenever I took a break from care-giving Marika, and always thought it was creepy. In fact, one time Marika walked with me in the cememtery, and I recall her saying how the whole thing of having a cememtery right next to the hospital where people were supposed to be focused on healing, was totally creepy. What I liked about Mount Hope was that there were names from different cultures and religions there. Not like the huge Jewish cemeteries I’d seen before. Oh, yes – the babies. So, at Greensprings, the markers are so tiny, and out of wood. Not sure how one would even find a particular burial site after a year or so. But maybe that’s part of the whole idea. I don’t think I mind not having my burial site findable. After all, I was going to be cremated and specified that my son should not feel obligated to collect my ashes. I kinda like the idea of not being pinned down to one place. That was before I found beautiful, gentle Greensprings.

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  2. Lynne Taetzsch

    Yes, Greensprings Natural Cemetery is a totally different experience from other cemeteries. We buried my husband Adrian there seven years ago, and I have a plot waiting for me. We had both planned to be cremated, and that was the option in our wills. But we had read an article about Greensprings that year, and a few days before he died, I asked Adrian if he’d like to be buried there. He said, “If you’re going to be buried there, I want to also.” When his sons arrived at that beautiful place on the edge of a forest, in drizzling rain, they agreed that this was the perfect place for their father.

    Reply
    1. Robin Botie Post author

      Lynne, isn’t it always in the rain? That was my experience at Greensprings too. But it was really special and I’m reconsidering the old cremation idea as well now. Well, we may be neighbors in our final resting place. Seems strange to think in terms of final resting places when, for so many years, I assumed I’d be burned into ashes. I actually even specified that no one should feel compelled to collect my ashes. So they were going to just disappear in the trash rather than have someone try to figure out a place to toss them. That would be my son. Mostly I don’t want him using my dead body as target practice, gun-lover that he is. I wonder of they have a prepayment plan at Greensprings?

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