I live with my family in a 17-acre Quaker cemetery outside of the west edge of Philadelphia. My husband, Graham, is the cemetery’s caretaker. We live in the house on the grounds built in 1860. Our 11-year-old son, Simon, has known no other home.
There are a few notable Quaker dead buried there: Henry Cadbury, Margaret Hope Bacon, and Addison Hutton, but most of those buried aren't famous—they just lived simple lives.
There are many old oaks and tulip trees and one magnificent sugar maple on the grounds. The gravestones are simple: low to the ground with limited inscriptions. Once a year, we have worship under the trees, followed by a picnic. For the past few years we've been offering green burials, burying the dead soon after they die, without embalming and in a simple casket, shroud, or quilt. Though many Quakers are buried in the cemetery, we bury anyone who wants a simple interment.
The neighborhood in which the burial ground is situated is mostly working class and incredibly racially and ethnically diverse. There are many new immigrants— Indian, Pakistani, Korean, Vietnamese, South American— living next to African-Americans and European-Americans. The neighborhood association we're a part of hosts potlucks in the nearby park in the summer and the spread of food is incredible, often including traditional foods I've never tasted before.
There is a three-acre community garden in the corner of the cemetery. It's a large garden, and those who participate grow all the produce together rather than having separate plots. The woman who runs it is a master gardener. The produce is rotated every year, and often, cover crops are grown to replenish the soil. Most of the families who participate are not Quaker.
Over the years, my family has eaten strawberries, Swiss chard, raspberries, English peas, lettuce, sour cherries, and tomatoes, produce fertilized by the compost of the Quaker past, from this garden.
Recently it's become clear what a treasure these grounds are to the community— a quiet, open space in the midst of the hubbub of row houses and urban activity outside the walls.
Many neighbors have shown up for work days and put their hands and backs into tending the space. The burial ground committee is talking about expanding the community gardens, planting a memorial garden, creating more openings in the stone walls, and making the space more accessible.
Recently, an imam approached Graham about setting aside many plots for Muslim burials. I asked whether they would adhere to our gravestone policy, and he said, "Oh, yes, the fact that we don't have huge crosses and memorials everywhere and that we do Muslim-style (green) burials makes the space attractive."
For a couple years, I've thought the burial ground was a living, vivid metaphor for the transformation to which Quakers might be called.
Often we take credit for the courageous work of our ancestors or we imagine in our past a time of a unified, prophetic voice without dissension.
But the call of our ancestors—those we hold up—is to discern the calling for our current lives.
Instead of worshiping our dead, I believe they would prefer that we honor them by living contemporary lives of faithfulness in partnership with the communities in which we reside. That we mix the humus of the past with the mud of our present, and out of that create nourishing food for and with the community. That we break down the barriers that keep the richness of humanity out of our lives and meetinghouses by being with and in those communities, finding ways to be partners in service.
It seems to me this is the centerpiece of transition for Quakers. I hope that we begin to understand more deeply that our treasures, whether burial grounds, meeting houses, or Quaker practice and tradition, are not ours alone—that our continued survival and relevance is connected to sharing what we know and understand with others in and beyond our communities, and to learning with and from our neighbors. And we will indeed be changed by that encounter.
Who knows what we might grow together?
Each summer I get to sample how such nourishing food might taste. I can testify, it is sweet.