In October, the Kokosing Nature Preserve, a conservation burial ground, was dedicated in Gambier, Ohio. The Preserve is a project of the Philander Chase Corporation, the land trust of Kenyon College, and offers a natural burial option on twenty-four acres of restored prairie and woodland.
Royal Rhodes, the Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies at Kenyon, read a poem of his own composition at the dedication ceremony. Common Sense for Seniors staff took Professor Rhodes course, “Grave Matters,” at the college last summer. He has shared the poem with them and given permission for it to be posted here.
First, a word of introduction from Professor Rhodes:
Poetry such as Thomas Grey’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and Kenyon’s own Robert Lowell’s “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”, and the simple words I add today give us a language to speak at the edge of language about where we fit in the cycles of life.
I’d like to dedicate my poem to Don Rogan and other Gambier friends, recently deceased, “whom we have loved long since/ and lost for just a while.”
RETURNING NATURALLY: WORDS ON THE
KOKOSING NATURE PRESERVE
~ written for the Dedication of the Kokosing
Far from the madding crowd a poet wrote
lines for a country graveyard’s elegy,
Another on Nantucket wrote of Quaker
graves, and whalers lost at last at sea.
Here we map the labyrinthine heart,
encased in clay, and tender to the earth.
Close is Nature’s final Lost & Found,
where life has lastly measured out its worth.
We hear the static rattle of the crows,
while patterns of the stars are closely read,
and eagle nestlings, fully fledged and fed,
fly where fawns keep pace with watchful does.
Here amidst the grass and nodding oak,
I go to gaze — the living’s awkward spy —
at dawn and dusk, as if my blood awoke
the scrutiny of some eternal eye.
The buried find a permanent address,
and never change their clothes — a suit or dress —
and say, when asked when they are coming home,
that it is in Ohio’s fertile loam,
where all our life prepares us for such sleep,
letting go of things we long to keep.
But now we hear a gently calling bell
whose music gladdens fields of asphodel.
Every culture crafts and makes its own
a sacred tale to tame this nameless zone;
as Orpheus found and lost Eurydice,
a mother’s love restored Persephone.
Love called forth from darkness Lazarus,
such love as strong as death will live in us.
Such light rejects our deeds that burn or rust —
machines we made that grind our hearts to dust.
The landscape is a palette of pastels,
surprising music, mixed with perfumed smells.
Botanicals and fauna all inhabit —
with deer and dogs, the turtle and the rabbit,
all creatures great and small, the nightly bats,
hummingbirds and grackles, bees and gnats —
a biosphere of rich diversity,
a looking-glass for our humanity.
In life, in death, these threads are deftly spun,
and weave us all together into one.