by Jodie Buller
For the past seven years I have stewarded a conservation burial ground in Washington state. It is an honor to support families to lay their loved ones to rest in this earth—reminding people to use their legs during the hand-lowering process, working together to help close the grave place, and receiving the stories that tend to tumble out when family are breaking a sweat and saying goodbye.
In March, I created Covid protocols to safely support families during a burial, including: What to Expect During a Burial, which I email ahead of time. It says things like: bring sturdy shoes and lots of water, please get gas before you leave your home town, don’t stop for snacks, please wear masks—common sense tips, with covid updates. I also ask whether the family would like to act as pallbearers, or whether our crew should do the lowering—that is the one time during a burial where people need to be closer than six feet, and I want everybody to be clear about that.
Families and friends who are coming out for a burial are undergoing a beautiful ritual and adventure together, and it definitely helps to plan ahead and set safety expectations. So much of the meaningfulness comes from those intuitive moments of expression, and it is important to me that the protocols don’t prevent the unfolding of meaning.
When a family arrives, I greet them from a distance, mask in hand, but first—I want them to see my face and my smile. I put a mask on and I give a small welcome talk about where we are and what will happen next. I tell them that our crew will be practicing physical distancing, and ask that they do, too. In a forest setting, this is fairly easy to do.
Most families have chosen to act as pallbearers, so I offer guidance on how to transfer their loved one’s body onto our wheeled cart, and pull the cart to the grave. Then I lay lowering straps down on the ground and step away. They thread the straps through the handles of the shroud or casket and walk their loved one to the grave, and I call out “use your legs” just like before, except from a bit further away. The straps go into a bucket and are sanitized later. There is a spray bottle with a bleach solution nearby, for when the shovels are traded off during the closing of the grave.
Physical distancing in the woods is a bit of a dance, and some people struggle with masks while doing physical work like shoveling, so I spend more time reminding people to take it slow, and to take breaks and drink water. Our crew is on hand to provide shoveling support, so we just ask the family to take a break and go visit the canyon, then come back and decorate the grave mound with flowers or pine cones and forest lichen when we are done.
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