Take Death by the Hand
“Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!”
–Mary Oliver, Snow Geese
I had only met Marilynn once. She had come to our community, located on the high plateau that descends off of Mt Adams in southern Washington State, on a late summer day to visit the forest where she was choosing to be buried.
Marilynn had a deep love for birds. Her professional life did not afford her much time outdoors, but after she retired she devoted herself to traveling to observe the marvels and diversity of these winged migrants. Marilynn had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and as the condition progressed, she began evaluating how she wanted to make her final life transition. It was this search that brought her to the Windward Community.
Marilynn did not want a funeral service. She did not want a headstone. What she wanted was to be buried in a place that provided refuge and habitat for the migratory birds she had grown to cherish. Her final wish was to rest her bones in the soils of the mixed oak savannah and open coniferous forest where, in summer, such intricately colored songbirds as western tanagers and yellow-rumped warblers come north to breed.
Now, Marilynn lies beneath wildflowers and native grasses within a cluster of Oregon White Oak trees in Herland Forest Natural Burial Cemetery – a nonprofit cemetery stewarded by members of the Windward Community.
Marilynn’s final stand was to lay her body down amidst the tree roots and mycelial networks and protect the forest for the birds for years to come. In turn, now it is these birds who travel each summer on their winged migration to visit Marilynn.
Oak Savannah in Herland Forest
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In 2011, the Windward Education & Research Center – the nonprofit umbrella organization managed by volunteer members of the Windward Community – dedicated 20 acres of the community’s land as a natural burial cemetery. The initial impetus for the project was to enable community members to be buried on the land they had come to call home. Since the land is owned by a nonprofit, rather than an individual, the only way for someone to be legally interred in the forest was for a portion of the land to become a licensed cemetery.
As the idea developed, so too did the recognition that death – death itself, care for the dying and our own death in turn – as Die Wise author Stephen Jenkinson so passionately explains, is “the proving ground, the cradle and the grave both, for every conviction we have about justice and mercy, about the meaning of life, about what love should look like and what it should do.”((Stephen Jenkinson. Orphan Wisdom. http://orphanwisdom.com/about/))
Since its conception, Herland Forest has evolved into a service that the community extends to any who seek for their death – or the death of a loved one – to nourish and support new life. In offering an opportunity for individuals to connect more holistically with death, we hope to contribute towards the rebirth of a culture that understands and honors the depths and fullness of the life – and death – cycle.
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I used to think that late Fall was the time in Nature’s cycle when things died. Marked by the crimson beauty of the senescing maple trees, Fall would bring with it the first hard frosts and the retreat of life underground towards the silent incubation of Winter.
Later when I moved into a forest and onto a farm, I began to see that Spring too is a time of death. The birthing of vibrant lambs is accompanied by stillborns and hungry coyotes who see vulnerable newborns as food for their own young. Summer then brings its causalities as the green flush of Spring is replaced by the dull brown of the dry season characteristic of eastern Washington. Usually, by late August, fires have burned thousands of acres of forests, leaving behind blackened silhouettes, signaling the path of destruction with rivers of smoke traveling south with the winds.
All of Nature is a Graveyard
Now I see that there is no season of death. Death comes when it comes. Far from an interruption, when death comes, it reveals that has really been here all along – creating the fertile soil from which life sprouts, nourishing the living, recycling the weak, transforming life over and over and over again. Sometimes violently. Often not. Without death, life comes to a screeching halt.
Yet in today’s society, many go to great lengths to try to disconnect from the hand of death. Purchasing food from the grocery store disguises that death is an intrinsic part of nourishing our bodies. Sterilizing homes to protect against germs or quickly medicating any psychological “abnormality” suggests a fear of the very nature of what it means to be alive – our whole being is impacted by and responds to the world around us. Acting from this place of fear has its costs. Protecting against the inherent destruction of death disconnects us from the fullness of life – what it means to live, what it means to be alive, and what it means to be human. In this disconnection lies the root of a great number of the crises western people now face.
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Herland Forest is named after a utopian novel((Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Herland. Forerunner Magazine, 1915.)) that describes a society whose economy and way of life is founded on people tending to the forest and the ecosystem that supports them. Nestled into the eastern edge of the Cascades – a transitional zone where moist mountain forests give way to the high prairies of the Columbia River basin – Herland Forest is dedicated to stewarding the reintegration of humans with the Earth in a simple and holistic manner and providing individuals or families opportunity to create meaningful ceremony to honor the lives of their beloveds. Home to towering Ponderosa pines and ancient Oregon white oaks, migratory birds, fungi, coyote, and everything in between, Herland is also protecting the forest from future development.
Establishing a forest as a legally recognized sanctuary for the dead, and the living who survive them creates enduring restrictions on the use and development of the land – helping ensure that the ecosystem’s vitality remains intact. So the power we hold in our bodies to create a more beautiful world does not wither with our death. Instead, by carefully choosing where we rest our bones, we can become a living embodiment in the native grasses and wildflowers, a bold example of what it means to embrace death – and the life that it then nourishes. We call those who choose to be buried in Herland Guardians, as they literally are helping to protect the life of the forest as they lay their bodies down amidst its trees.
Creating end of life traditions that recognize a life well lived is an essential aspect of a personal and collective relationship with death. Jenkinson offers that “the meanings of life aren’t inherited. What is inherited is the mandate to make meanings of life by how we live. The endings of life give life’s meanings a chance to show.” Herland Forest is an invitation for individuals and families to create for themselves – during life or after death – these ceremonies and rites of passage that give life’s meaning an opportunity to be incorporated into our felt experience.
Stewarding this container, both the living forest and the legal framework of Herland is one of Windward’s responses to the deafening call for creating a working model of a better way to live on and with this Earth. It is our way of publicly acknowledging that creating a culture that supports Life, means creating a more grounded relationship with Death and the process of dying. Providing people with the opportunity to engage intimately in a fundamental part of what it means to be alive, is the kind of structural alternative that activist and author Joanna Macy is referring to when she says “these actions may look marginal but they hold the seeds for the future.”((Joanna Macy. http://www.joannamacy.net/threedimensionsofthegreatturning.html.)) In an age of disconnection, we are offering through Herland Forest the chance for people to bear witness as the contract we each signed the day we were born that “Life has to continue. Not ‘you’ have to continue” is written into the freshly mounded soils with wildflower seed or a newly planted tree.((Stephen Jenkinson in “The Meaning of Death.” Film by Ian Mackenzie.))
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Being animal, being human, we each eventually come face to face with our own mortality. Every time I take the life of a pig or chicken we have raised on our homestead farm, I am viscerally reminded how easy it is for that same life to drain out of me. It’s a humbling experience, and it awakens me like no other to how precious, how unique, life truly is. I feel in my own blood the pulsing imperative to love and live as deeply, as fully, and as freely as I can.
Yet, I have come to understand, too, that Life simply takes from us. All that Life gives, it gives freely and generously. But anyone who has lived long enough knows that eventually, the day comes when Life will swallow someone you love, whole. It is the death of a dearly beloved that can make the whole body wretch in a pain so deep it’s as if the very cords connecting you to Life are being severed by a dull knife.
There is no sugar coating Death. As true as it is that death inherently nourishes new life, it doesn’t make the dying or the loss easy. Death has its own timeline and when it comes, it brings with it a complexity of feelings with as many variations as there are lives that have lived. Death can be tragic. Death can be a relief. Death can create chaos, confusion or questions that scrape at the very fabric that is the meaning of existence. For the dying, some even suggest that death can be ecstatic. Death intrigues as much as it frightens – for in death lies the heart of the mystery and miracle of Life itself. In death lies a key piece of the Story in which we each have a role and each play a part.
When Death reveals itself, I am learning to be present with and respond to as much, or as little, as it asks of me. As a steward of the land, I have come to understand that being in service to Life means being in service to Death – reaching down to that well of knowledge and intuition that tells me when to stand blocking Death’s path and when to meet Death’s gaze as I step aside and bear witness.
As a steward of community, I have come to experience that being in service to the community means being in service to life transitions, those liminal spaces that mark the evolution of each person, or organization. It asks me to help facilitate the shedding of what no longer serves – allowing the death inherent in organic growth to create space for rebirth in the individual or the collective.
As a steward of a Natural Burial Cemetery, however, I am just beginning to understand what it means to be in service to the dying, to the dead, and to their living beloved. I am no stranger to intimate conversations. But this feels different. I am being invited into the lives of those preparing for their own death – those who are choosing for their bodies to nourish the very soils, grasses and trees that then give me and so many other living creatures refuge and solace, air to breath and food to eat.
In this place of deep connectedness, politics are set aside and lifestyle choices become irrelevant, religion too falls away and with it our deep-seated beliefs. The web of life itself begins to collapse in on itself as the embodied understanding sets in that we are each a part and each the whole of something so beautiful it stuns. The only response I can muster is for my mouth to drop open and to let the tears fall as I take it all into the marrow of my bones – knowing that, somehow through the mysteries of the human experience, something will well in me that I can offer in return.
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On a warm morning in late March, we gathered to bury Marilynn. The snow had melted and the ground was moist. The spring grasses were racing against the arrival of the shade that comes with the leafing out of the oaks in May. Marilynn’s family was not arriving until the following day, and it was our task to bury her body. Dressed in her Malheur National Wildlife Refuge t-shirt, it was time for Marilynn to be returned to the Earth and returned to the birds.
We carried Marilynn through the oaks and pines to her gravesite, dug with shovel and sweat. Her coffin was a simple cardboard box. We did not know Marilynn well, but as we lowered her into the ground, we recounted the stories that we did know of her life and what she loved. And as we shoveled the soil and stone into the grave, something remarkable happened: we began recounting stories of our loved ones who have died and our preparations for our own death.
Returning Marilynn to the Earth
Opalyn shared about her grandfather who had died while she was serving overseas in the military and the struggle that persists today because of not being able to attend his funeral. To the surprise of some listening, Andrew spoke to the intention of digging his own grave – not as a cathartic contemplation of Death – but as a simple recognition that his death and burial is as much a part of his life as seeding the garden in Spring or cutting the firewood to warm us in Winter.
When we invite Death into our lives, or rather, acknowledge its presence all around us, we invite with it the depth and complexity of feelings that begin to heal and restore a piece of our humanity. Because of Marilynn’s determination for her death to foster the growth and renewal of life for generations to come, she offers each person who visits Herland Forest an invitation to feel the vulnerability and potency of what it is to live and die with dignity.
*This article first appeared in Communities: Life in Cooperative Culture, issue #172, Fall 2016; see ic.org/communities and www.ic.org/community-