by Jennifer Downs (previously published with Green Burial Maryland)
I drove into the cemetery just as the service was to begin after passing through a bleak neighborhood in Baltimore. It was a grey day and large trees reached into the sky, birds chirped as I gazed at the expanse of green space with a stone wall surrounding us. Standing with a large group of friends and family around the freshly dug grave, I looked around and found myself sighing with ease. I teared up at the reality of what I know this family had gone through while also mourning the loss.
My friend and fellow board member on the Green Burial Association of Maryland, Mike Franch, was abruptly confronted with the need to find a burial site for his wife of many years. Working diligently to make green or natural burial available in Maryland, it was ironic that he had very little choice and had to postpone her burial for ten days. Yet in the end, he and his daughter worked tirelessly to find a way to come to peace with their plan. They prioritized what was most important:
It felt just right, this spot in the city, especially because Eileen spent her life here as a lawyer protecting and defending foster children. They found a flexible funeral home, the Parkview Funeral Home, which would care for Eileen’s body as they sorted out the details. The only cemetery that would allow no vault was a stately old Jewish cemetery owned by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation on the East side of the city.
It is incredible that Mike, who had just lost his wife, also had to bear the difficult task of trying to find a cemetery that allowed green burial practices. Such a seemingly simple request, and yet, still not widely available, even in Baltimore, a large city.
In this cemetery the presiding cleric must be Jewish even if the family isn’t. Mike, in his creative attempt to make it all work, found a Rabbi known for her ability to adapt and adjust. She led the service with a strong, clear voice that gave comfort and inspiration to this motley crowd of dancers, social workers, lawyers and Unitarians.
A Unitarian minister himself, Mike stood and made a few welcoming remarks about the process and his gratitude to those who attended. He then turned it over to the Rabbi. She gracefully incorporated several traditions practiced in Jewish burials. After just enough people shared remembrances and support, she directed us to the shovels in the large pile of clay-dirt beside the grave. The wicker casket was lowered into the earth.
Mike and his daughter shoveled earth into the grave, then we took turns as well. The Rabbi explained this as a blessing to the deceased and a task of offering. At the end, she directed us to stand on two sides and invited the family to walk between, back out into the world.
I stood at the gravesite, also grateful for the cluster of mourners, there to mark the moment. How very real to see the dirt, the grave, the beautiful wicker casket and to feel the timelessness of the moment. These images stay with me as I appreciate the work before us to make such a simple and meaningful way of death more easily available.