“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?