40 years ago this Halloween, I was a new hire for a mortuary in my home town. I had begun my job on September 9th and was still getting used to my office being in the mausoleum at the top of the hill in the middle of the cemetery.
To be honest I was both naive and afraid. I probably never should have taken the job of record keeper and secretary but my husband and I needed the money to begin to save money to buy our first home. So even though I had a terrible case of nerves each and every morning as I unlocked the mausoleum, I went about learning my job.
There were only 8 workers in the cemetery. A grounds superintendent, with whom I shared the office, the sales manager's office at the bottom of the hill, where the cemetery plots and crypts were sold, the 5 grave diggers/grounds keepers and myself. Oh and I must not forget the old Native American couple who lived in the steward's house at the end of the drive. My co-workers were a very interesting mix of personalities and I quickly made friends with one and all. My particular favorite was Eddie the grounds superintendent. He was a quiet but affable guy who was laid back and funny. He never stressed about anything and was a huge line of support for a very uneasy 26 year old.
He teased me unmercifully and told me I had nothing to fear but fear itself. Not that he looked like Winston Churchhill in the slightest. Eddie was rail of a man. 6 ft tall and probably 150 lbs dripping wet but he had the sinewy kind of muscles that were required for his very labor intensive labors as boss of the cemetery. He had been at the cemetery for 20 something years and knew every tree, bush, nook and cranny of the huge acreage and the expansive mausoleum.
I remember my first day in the office as if it were yesterday. 40 years has not diminished the powerful aura of the place and the impact of every person who came and went that morning.
At noon, music began to play and I almost came out of my skin. I had been working hard to look over the record books and see how the entries should be made. Deep in concentration, the first bells peeling out their notes were like an electric shock to my brain. I don't remember jumping to my feet but the next thing I remember I was standing at the front glass doors ready to exit. That's how I first met Mr. Stewart, the original owner's, son in law. I must have frightened him as well because he jumped back and had a look like he had never seen anything like it. Me running towards the exit as the carrilon bells rang out Amazing Grace. Not exactly how you want to impress the boss.
That was the first of many frights that came my way during the first two months of my employ. The funeral directors and staff at the mortuary took great pleasure in scaring me, because all knew I was easily frightened. It was an ongoing battle between my imagination and the scare tactics of the others that worked around me.
The first all Hallows Eve is also is cemented into my memory with the ghost lights that shone from the cemetery grounds. Eddie warned me about the practice of lighting the graveyard to ward off the departed from coming back to this realm. If he had not warned me, I swear I wouldn't have ventured out of the mausoleum. Candles placed on the graves and people milling about in the twilight just as I was leaving my office. It was the eeriest thing I had ever see, up to that point. Little did I know that the burial practices of others would be the most shocking of all.
The overwhelming thing to me was to watch families bury their children. The sounds of the crying was heart wrenching. But worse were the visits observed where the parents, grandparents, other loved ones would bring gifts to the grave sites. Toys, balloons, and mementos were the hardest to note. And then there was the theft of those items by who knows what heartless person, with no compassion whatsoever. I was the one that had to listen to brokenhearted folks who had lost not only their loved ones but the tokens they had left for the departed. So many times these brokenhearted ones would point their finger at the staff of the cemetery and sometimes, I think they were right. It was very hard to have to sit and listen but it was a lesson that I am glad I had to learn. I believe the years that I worked in the cemetery were the basis for my understanding and compassion for others.
But now to the interesting and bizarre burial rituals of others.
We had a Romany service in the Chapel at the Mausoleum. The man was an elder in the family and by rights had paid mourners lead the procession into the Chapel. The racket was goose pimple inducing and I had never experienced anything like it. The wailing and carrying on lasted for a good hour before the "service" began. Then the mourners filed past the open casket and left money for the departed. After the service, the eldest son took up all the money left in the casket and counted it all out and then wrote a check to his father, the deceased and sealed the deal by putting silver dollar coins on his father's eyes. Then the casket was closed and they set up a bar on the casket and everyone including the children had a drink toasting the deceased. When this was finished, a procession complete with dancers and guitar players walked the casket to the cemetery plot, where they all had another drink and then left the cemetery.
We also "hosted" a bikers funeral at graveside. Hundreds of motorcycles rumbled into the cemetery and drove throughout the grounds. When they came to the graveside, a service "of sorts" was preformed and then his fellow bikers gave him a tribute as his casket was being lowered. They all took a whizz on him. I guess that was their idea of a 21 gun salute. Yikes.
This brings me to the last "different" and out of the ordinary death ritual. I was not familiar with any Southeast Asian funeral rites and this one really was colorful and interesting. Before the family came to the graveside, white runners were placed over the ground where the mourners would walk and all around the graveside. Then the casket was placed on the lowering device, and all manner of fruit, flowers, food and drink were piled high all around the grave. Much incense and chanting accompanied the service. And then the mourners filed out of the grounds, into their cars and out of the cemetery.
I was most curious about this service and went down to the site myself. The flowers were lavish and exotic, the aroma of the food was overwhelming and the beauty of all of the combined colors on the stark white background was beautiful. Eddie explained that they had had several Taoist funerals and that the food had to stay on the grave for at least 5 days. He remarked that it would be hard to keep the "workers" from taking some of the food and even harder to keep the coyotes and other scavengers like the crows and falcons from taking their share but that it needed to be that way. Eddie warned the guys that most of the food had been sitting out for at least 2 days already and really could make them sick.
Sure enough, the next day, 2 of the "workers" called in sick with stomach problems. Sometimes the living just do not make sense.
This is not ritual per se but rather the oddities I observed while keeping records, listening to people and overcoming my own fear of the the noises and visitations of those that had passed over. (This part is a posting for a later time.)
Many, many people make a routine of visiting their loved ones. Most do so in a quiet, respectful way. However, in my experience there are those who must have not had the kind of relationship with the deceased that they wished they had had or still held grudges or some such problem because, we had folks who would come into the mausoleum (where I could hear them carrying on) and scream and yell at the deceased. Or do battle with the marble that covered the crypts or headstones in the cemetery. Lots of anger and pent up emotions are exhibited in graveyards. And as many notes are left with confession, or longing or hatred or rage.
I learned to listen to what angels or demons people had been in the lifetime. How much they were missed or how glad the person was to have them out of pain. And I also listen to tales of abuse, neglect, mistreatment and abandonment.
The main ritual of burying the dead is the actions of the living. It is individual, delicate and always unsettling to the persons left behind. The ritual of death is emotion, of so many kinds. There is a fine line that we all walk between life and death. The most confused people I met were the ones who had no idea about what they believe death is and where we go afterwards. I can't tell you how many times I heard people say, "do you think my departed one is okay"?
I had some of the departed visit me as well while I worked in that crypt surrounded office. Most all of these visitors were newly departed. Not quite sure of what had happened to them. Still wondering and wandering.
I would not give anything for the time I was that close to the veil. It gave me my own reason for wanting not to be included in a gathering place for those who have passed over. I want to be part of the landscape, part of my Sandia Mountains, to go back from whence I came.........stardust. I've told my family to blow me a kiss towards the moon and I'll be watching them with joy for the life I have had and the blessed journey I have been on.