Outside the Circle

Cindy Milstein



I spent a misty-rainy autumn afternoon yesterday with a cemetarian, walking through the woods to see various natural burial sites, mostly already hidden beneath renewed ground cover or fallen branches. His passion for highly participatory, hands-on, and hand-done burials was only matched by his passion for land as key to any sort of justice.

He is self-taught in all this work, including how to dig a grave, which as he explained to me, more often than not became a communal project with those who were losing or had lost a loved one to death. As we strolled through the silent wood, he retold story after story, of the seasonal shift in people as they joined him in this natural process, of all the ways that different glimpses of goodness and healing came through the pain as they joined in digging a hole, filling it in with beloved body and then rich soil, perhaps mixed with wild flower seeds or acorns tossed in as remembrance.

This natural burial sanctuary is, in fact, intimately connected to transformation, personal and political, if one can even separate the two. It is housed on acres of land dedicated to education and organizing work — farming and social change that are, in turn, tied to projects and people in a nearby urban area. Not ashes to ashes or dust to dust, but soil to soil, life to life, struggle to struggle.

He handed me some written material, including a piece that related the values of hospice to those of natural burial — both, at the core, motivated by ethical impulses — and a flyer with this Aldo Leopold quote:

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

He pointed toward a particularly spectacular tree, telling me it was probably 100 years old or more. The tree arched, unbalanced, like a broken yet comforting umbrella, spreading its half-leafed branches over the wet earth. Part of its rugged bark was torn though healed, evidence of a missing limb from decades’ past. My cemetarian friend explained to me that for him, this tree’s beauty and wounds both are part of its life — intertwined, as is the beauty and suffering of the human condition.

Through land as community not commodity, through our participation in spaces of our own, for do-it-together life and death, I suspect can better (re)learn how to treat our fellow humans and the nonhuman world with love and respect.

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(Photo by Cindy Milstein, Madison, WI, October 15, 2014.)

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This entry was posted on October 15, 2014 by in Dispatches from Life.
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