honoring the dead and the earth

For just a moment tonight I will close my eyes and think about a stretch of forest near Gales Creek, in the Tillamook Forest, in the Coastal Range, in the Northwest region of Oregon.  The world has turned upon its axis and the inhabitants on this side of the planet are now given the treat of witnessing, one more blessed time, the sight of jewels hanging in the depths above their heads.  That is where this view is not obscured by the garments of clouds and the arms of the forest canopy.

To some the forest is quiet.  But life explodes at a glacial pace and fades away like lightning in the night of a forest.  A tiny brook babbles crisply over stone before once again embraced by thick undergrowth of fallen leaves, moss, flesh and bone, returning to the cauldron of life and decaying anew as soil, nourishing the current generation of plants and animals.

In between stalks of nettle glides a black shadow.  Intently, calmly and with the patience of a seasoned hunter, the small black cat stalks her prey that is feasting upon the mushrooms under a nurse-log sprouting new hemlocks.  A break in the clouds and the light of the moon spirals down between the douglas-fir and spruce; the little cat’s eyes shine like tea lights in a dark alcove.

I once had a little black pug-nosed cat with big owl-eyes named Pandora.  This little cat was left behind in a parking lot in Houston by a family that no longer wanted her.  We found each other and a friendship was quickly formed that lasted until her sudden sickness and death six years later.  We ran every test there was on her and could find no answers to her dramatic loss of body weight.  Two days later I consented for the injection to ease her into that final sleep and I watched the light go out in her eyes that had always looked upon me with love.  I took her home, placed her wrapped body on my altar, and I laid on my bed in deep grief and sadness, feeling such a painful loss.

I buried my beloved pet, Pandora, out in the Tillamook State Forest.  I took her body out to a spot by a stream and dug a deep hole.  A friend who had come with me placed a can of opened tuna fish beside her body.  With heavy heart I filled in the hole with dirt and built a small cairn over the top with rocks from the stream.

The forest has always been a special place for me.  It is where I go to grow or retreat to from fear.  It is where the horizons and depths of my soul have yet to touch its limits.  Now this stretch of forest, along the Gales Creek in the Tillamook State Forest, is sacred to me.  Because it was somewhere that I buried my memories and love, that my feelings and experience transformed it from a location to a place.  I remember when I first heard the term place in reference to a genre of literature.  It was an alien concept to a male that has moved a lot over the years, never setting down roots with either a location or a people.  Now, I get it.

Americans, by and large, are a nation of people without place.  Our families are constantly on the move against a backdrop of the great story of movements.  Our histories are those of immigrations and movements for fortune and escape, for chance and expulsion, hope and despair.  How many of us know the place around us?  I am ashamed that I cannot describe my watershed, know the patterns of life around me, when different animals are born and where, or the different seasons of plants.  I must consult books and charts, like a good modern academic.  Somewhere there are people who know how to plant and hunt without the aids of an almanac.

Part of the debate around forest logging is on the logging.  It is summed up as logging = bad, not logging = good.  This is not only a false dichotomy, that is to say, that to assume it is one or the other as the only way is a false choice, but is not worthy of who we are as magnificent beings with deep, rich experiences.  It is not a question of to log or not to log, but a question of relationship with the forest.

For just a moment, think about your loved ones who have died before and who are buried in a plot of land that is peaceful and tranquil, perhaps with some walking paths and some benches among the shade trees.  Now imagine a very solemn ceremony is to be held, commemorating their memory and the feelings of family and friends.  Everyone is present and paying their respects to the departed.  And then the digging begins.  The caskets are raised up and brought once more into the sun’s light.  Then it is loaded onto a vehicle and a procession takes place to a stretch of land outside of town.  A quiet meadow or a deep forest beneath a ridge.  The body, wrapped in natural linen, is solemnly, or perhaps joyously with song, taken down a path to a selected place.  Everyone has a shovel of their own and people take turns digging.  Some are quiet, others cry, and some tell stories of memories past.  At last the hole is dug and the body is laid gently down, the hole is filled, and the only markers left on the top are from the natural world.  Some are stones from the nearby area, others have stones with etchings on them with something of meaning on them.  Everyone has a bit of the earth on their clothes, the sacred earth to which the body of their loved one was just returned to.

Imagine for a moment that there are plans to utilize some of the land for its natural resources, whatever it may be.  What are the guiding principles in your heart now?  We need water, farmland, timber, and other things from the world around us.  Yet it isn’t a question of whether farming trees is inherently bad.  That leads into a maze of ethics where battles are fiercely fought and still no answers are found.

We bury our dead in a separate place called a cemetery that is cut-off from the rest of the world, manicured until we believe it is something else all together.  Through the rituals of church it becomes hallowed ground while their teachings continue to tell us that the rest of the earth, the very nurturing soil, deep and rich, moist and giving, is sinful and dirty and of which one must be cleansed from.  Yet this ball of dirt is filled with organic matter.  Organic is life in cycle.  Dirt, with all its decaying organic matter are now nutrients for this generation of life, until we too take our place in the cycle.

What would our attitudes toward the forest, plains, and wetlands around us be if we buried our honored dead there?  Not only from a position of spiritual depth, but also it is the only place fitting for an organism so exquisite, so beautiful, so amazing as a human being.

I hope that I will be buried in the wilds where I might return to the cycle from which I came.

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One thought on “honoring the dead and the earth

  1. I recently attended my great aunt Vi’s funeral. She was embalmed and placed into a fortress of a coffin which was placed into the marble faced wall of a mausoleum. The plaque over her space in the wall was sealed twice; once with a heavy grey industrial looking piece of plastic which was caulked into place then again with the marble plaque which was caulked and drilled into place. We stayed to watch the whole thing. Nothing could have been more depressing to me than to think of her being trapped in that tiny cement square until the end of the earth. I wished for her the same that I wish for myself and that you wish for yourself. To be laid down in the embrace of the earth with nothing, nothing at all between me and the great mother. The afterlife I hope for is one in which I can be free and transformed into new life and grow, squirm, wriggle, hop and fly away in all directions. I asked the chaplain if this was legal. He said yes. They call it a green burial. I found out, I could indeed be laid to rest next to my family in the cemetery right outside their mausoleum, just as naked and earthy as I wanna be. I found that comforting :^)

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