Sunday, March 27, 2016

...periwinkle, redbuds & resurrection...

Every parting gives a foretaste of death,
every reunion a hint of the resurrection.
~Arthur Schopenhauer 

Today is a pretty good day to discuss themes of death and resurrection. Most historians believe that many of the elements of today’s religious observance of Easter are derived from earlier Pagan celebrations. Some folks get pretty offended by statements like that but not me.  Recently, it seems that we Americans have too much intolerance for nearly everything. Easter, the most important Holy day, at least in the Catholic calendar, celebrates the Christian teaching that Jesus rose from the dead after hanging on the cross, a process that wouldn’t have offered an instant death. This post isn’t going to be overly religious. It’s actually about cemeteries. Yet, the themes juxtapose quite nicely.

Yesterday, I participated in a day of community service at East End Cemetery. As one of four historic African American cemeteries (Evergreen, East End Cemetery, Oakwood Colored Section, and Colored Pauper’s Cemetery) in Richmond, it is the final resting place for many prominent African-American Richmonders from the early 1900s. The cemetery has faced numerous obstacles as a privately owned establishment. It has become overgrown and a place where people come to dump their trash. For the day of service, I volunteered to “restore the cemetery by cleaning trash and cutting away plants and overgrowth.” That was the description. While I did help, I left feeling both physically and mentally exhausted.    

Until yesterday, Odd Fellows Rest, a cemetery the size of a block in New Orleans, had the worst conditions I’ve seen. East End Cemetery in Richmond, VA, with an estimated size of about 15-16 acres, surpasses those conditions. In Odd Fellows Rest, you can see monuments and markers deteriorating; in East End Cemetery you have to remove the ivy (English and Poison Ivy) by hand to even find the gravestones.  

John Shuck, the volunteer coordinator, has been working on the project since around 2012 when the volunteers had previously been working at Evergreen Cemetery, which is also overgrown and nearly 60 acres, until there was some type of dispute with the owners and the volunteers.

I have seen numerous inquiries as well as complaints about the state of the cemetery on social media. Shuck, who is somewhat soft-spoken and incredibly humble, doesn’t seem to waste time talking about the why’s and how’s and is more interested in restoring the place.  

Yesterday, I watched a volunteer take a shovel and dig up a marker so that he could level it; another volunteer walked around collecting our bins of debris taking them back and forth to the large dumpster.  Others, like me, raked and pulled weeds and ivy. It reminded me a bit of a moving meditation, connecting to both nature and to the divine. Yesterday, Catholics reflected during Holy Saturday, the day after Good Friday and before Easter. It’s considered a solemn day since it was the day that Jesus’ body lay in the tomb waiting for the resurrection. Yesterday, I raked ivy cutting it at its roots and dumping it into a bucket.

periwinkle is a classical landscaping plant for cemeteries
Connie from Hartwood Roses and I worked from around 9am to noon removing debris and the ivy. I cleared about two plots. That’s right, just two plots. Our basic instructions were to clear away all the plant life and leave the ground. Of course, Connie resurrected a few that were clearly planted by someone. She’ll plant them in her garden and when the cemetery is one day cleared and seeded for grass, she’ll move them back to their previous spots.

Connie among the periwinkle that matches her hair

For the majority of the time, I had a somewhat intimate relationship with Mr. Manson who was interred somewhere beneath me. In fact, for a good amount of the time I straddled depressions in the ground where wooden coffins and their remains had collapsed into the earth now leaving holes. You can see this in the picture of the workers.

look carefully to see the collapsed ground
My body was exhausted from the labor and I couldn’t help but wonder if this volunteer effort was some type of prayer for Shuck who continues week after week when the place seems so hopeless. I also became somewhat annoyed by the passiveness of church… sitting and waiting when instead one could be out there actively doing.

At the end of the day, Shuck gave us a tour of the grounds of East End Cemetery and Evergreen Cemetery. He noted what had been done and what needed to be done; he noted the people who were buried there. He noted the clean-up that had gone on a few years ago that nature has already taken back. This is a continuous effort, a weekly removing of ivy and the grounds while the weeds continue to grow. 

Shuck reminds me of one of my favorite trees, the Easter Redbud. They grow no taller than 30 feet and offer gorgeous purple flowers in very early spring. I see them right at the point when all hope is lost. The winter melancholy has slipped in and I cannot imagine it will ever be warm again… then a Redbud enters the picture and my spirit lifts whispering “resurrection.”  
much of this area has already been cleared at one point... note the Redbud


  1. Working at the cemetery with you on Saturday was surreal. The experience reminds me of a favorite quote from Dr. Seuss's "The Cat in the Hat" ... "...'And this mess is so big And so deep and so tall, We cannot pick it up. There is no way at all!' John's effort and energy proves there IS a way.

    1. Love that quote. Loved hanging with you too.

  2. It is very sad that people and the church have deserted the cemetery, or not caring for it. :( That's why it even more important that there are people like Shuck and you all volunteers who want to change the situation! ^^ I hope you had a happy Easter!

    1. Indeed it is. We all need more good volunteers in this world.