Choosing green burial honored Mikaela's environmental values and the family's Muslim heritage.
The Discussions About Death That Prepared Us My daughter Mikaela and I talked about death a decent amount as she grew up. The devastation of holding my mother as she died in my arms unexpectedly when I was just 17 had changed my existence. It meant that I had to help prepare my children for the loss they would experience in their lives. It was important to me that my children had some type of healthy relationship with the topic to help support them as they moved through life. Turn toward the thing that is scary and difficult. Explore it and learn about it.
Death is a topic that we avoid and look away from in this society. The work of death is hidden from us, managed by strangers when the time comes to care for a loved one in their final days on this earth in human form. We are put into someone’s structure of convenience and financial gain because we don’t know the resources, laws, and options open to us. Death is difficult, painful, messy, shocking, devastating, and so much more. It is understandable that we don’t want to turn towards it. Yet, we will all experience it. We will all lose someone we love and eventually we will die too.
Since Mikaela is my oldest, I wanted to prepare her for what to do when her father and I died. The natural order of things, a child to bury their parent. My mother had prepared me on the “business” side of life: bank accounts, wills, etc. But she hadn’t expressed what she wanted done with her body or what ceremony or traditions she wished for. Her husband was Catholic and she was Muslim. Sadly, except for the ceremonial washing of her body, none of her religious traditions were upheld in her burial. It was important for me to learn and do better for the next cycles of life.
The conversations Mikaela and I had about death grew and changed as she got older; it always felt important. She wanted her body left to science, exclaiming, “What would I need with my meat suit after I’m gone?” We argued about this, as it wasn’t my first choice for her. But I thought, I’ll be long gone by the time she can sort that out.
Green Burial: She Could Live on Through Other Living Things A few months before Mikaela caught the flu that led to her death at age 22, we discussed another option: to be buried in a green cemetery. She had just learned about them and felt that returning her body to the earth seemed very appropriate, so that she could live on through other living things. It was important to us that the choice be environmentally friendly, as opposed to the environmental impact of embalming and conventional burial or cremation, along with not supporting a giant corporate industry. We agreed that green burial upheld and aligned with many of our values and beliefs around honoring the environment and our family ways. I shared my experience of beauty and serenity at a green cemetery called White Eagle Memorial Preserve. I had completed a vision quest on the Sacred Earth Foundation land associated with the Ekone Ranch and White Eagle a few years earlier.
As we waited for the time that Mikaela would be removed from life support, contact was made with the White Eagle cemetery manager, Jodie Buller. Honoring the Islamic burial traditions of our family of origin required burial as swiftly as possible after death. Jodie explained that there were some elements we would have to handle to make the burial a reality in the time frame we were requesting given their groundskeeper and family were currently out of town. We would need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to get up the interior road to the burial site; the road was very wet and less travel-friendly due to late winter weather. In addition, we would need to dig the grave ourselves. Neither of these requirements seemed like a hurdle; they only reinforced the gifts that we would be given through this journey. The real challenges presented to us came through the state’s legal requirements for transporting a body for burial. (See Part 3: Burial Permit.)
As we held vigil with Mikaela at the hospital in Seattle (see Part 1: Hospital Vigil), preparations were made for her burial three hours away in the Ponderosa pine forest outside of Goldendale. Her father, brother, boyfriend, and best friend would be driven to White Eagle early on Thursday morning by my close friend, who was acting as liaison with the cemetery staff. They would create sacred space on the piece of land where our sweet girl’s body would be laid to rest. I would stay in town with Mikaela and care for her as she was washed and shrouded. (Burial at White Eagle allows for shrouding with biodegradable materials or a casket that can biodegrade.)
Digging Her Grave, Preparing Her Body Before their departure, we hugged. We cried. The weight of what lay ahead laid heavy on us all. The men left to dig her grave. In what was relayed to me of the day, digging her grave was its own sacred act of love, filled with all types of weather, perseverance, and unparalleled love. Her brother, 15 at the time, despite being wet and cold, kept working because it would “warm him up”: his ultimate love in action for his sister and best friend. They pulled out giant stones that required two or three people to lift. Unrelenting in their act of love. Giving them the chance to be healed by the earth and the work. Her father decorated her grave with all the sacred materials he had, to ensure the body of his sweet girl was held in safety and beauty.
Though our timing didn’t work according to our carefully made plan, the timing that Mikaela orchestrated for us turned out truly perfect. Mikaela’s body was brought to the Islamic Center from the hospital three hours after our expected arrival time. (See Part 3: Burial Permit.) Through tears and laughter, a group of beautiful women and I completed the solemn task of burial preparation. She was washed, prayed over, and shrouded.
Next, we had to get her into the back of my 4Runner which was plush with beauty. Earlier that day, a dear friend and I had been quite the sight under the awning of a hotel, sheltered from the pouring rain, preparing a bed of beauty in the back of my car with flowers and greenery she had brought. We’d planned for so much but hadn’t considered this about caring for a body: how will you move the person around? Thankfully, the young woman who had transported Mikaela to the Islamic Center had waited, and we were able to use her gurney to move Mikaela from place to place. We wheeled her body to the car, planning to slide her straight into the back, only to realize that her feet weren’t inside. My friend and I looked each other and made silly faces. I grabbed Mikaela’s shoulders, he grabbed her feet and we slid her at a diagonal. She fit, barely! Thank goodness. Phew! At this point, burying her at sunset as we’d planned wasn’t going to happen, but this didn’t keep me from trying.
With my close friend and spiritual teacher as co-pilots, we led the cars to our destination, pulling into the ranch after 9pm. Adapting. Grateful for the cemetery staff who were so generous and kind in their flexibility and holding of our small group. This was our journey with our daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, friend. For us it was vital that the circle remain small and sacred.
Once we arrived, everyone began to walk up to the cemetery in the dark, cold night. My husband drove in the car with me as we made the slow procession up the road to the cemetery, taking our child’s body to her final resting place. The group witnessed our arrival and then walked on to the burial site, the place we like to call her sacred site because it holds her body.
Exquisitely Beautiful and Excruciatingly Painful It was the clearest and most beautiful of evenings. The stars shone brighter than anything I have ever witnessed in my life. With just our immediate family, my two teachers and close friend, we were led through the Cherokee blanket ceremony, a ceremony to honor the completion of a life and the closing of the circle in this world. Wrapping Mikaela in her medicine blanket, praying over her body, saying our private goodbyes. Then the boys pulled her body on White Eagle’s wheeled cart as the women led the way. A procession as beautiful as it was somber, with a small trail of flowers falling from the cart to the ground in the freezing night.
Arriving graveside, the men moved her from the cart to the side of the grave. Her father at her head, her brother at her feet, they lowered themselves into the grave to lovingly and carefully place her upon the earth, decorated and ready to receive her. Sacred objects joined her in the space to support her spirit’s journey. Then her boyfriend spoke, sharing her favorite lines from Shakespeare, speaking of his love and appreciation for her. A few others spoke. There were prayers from many origins. Then when everyone felt complete in their offerings, it was time.
Her father handed me the shovel. I showered her body with the first dirt, then her father, her brother, her boyfriend, her grandfather, her best friend, and anyone else who wished to do so. I sat at the foot of her grave and sang to her as they filled in the dirt. The men who dug the grave with their love, sweat and tears, filled it again, now holding the most precious human in our world. The stars shone bright. The sacred bowl of water we had brought had a thin film of ice on it, adding to the surreal nature of the experience.
Burying my daughter was the most exquisitely beautiful and excruciatingly painful experience of my entire life. It was a journey we took together that marked the end of her passage in human form on this earth and the beginning of ours in learning to live this life without her. The tapestry of love, grace, and pain woven into a vision that takes your breath away. One can never fathom the true grace that can be gifted in such a devastating time. Being able to weave this tapestry our way, the way that honored the uniqueness of Saajeda Mikaela in her short life and gave us a way to create grace and tenderness in our agonizing loss: this remains a priceless gift.
Landscape photos courtesy of Sean Proll Justin Craig All Rights Reserved
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