Graveyard. When you hear that word, what comes to mind? Perhaps neatly mown grass—short blades interrupted by granite headstones carved with names and scrollwork. Perhaps vases of flowers, trinkets, or similar tributes to the dead settled near the stones? Perhaps neatly trimmed boxwoods? Perhaps a main street purview, circumferenced by a wrought iron fence? Corhaven Graveyard is different. Woven into this forested burial ground, which is dedicated to honoring those once enslaved on an antebellum plantation, is an intricate connection with Creation Care.
The tribute garden at Corhaven Graveyard is a nationally-registered monarch butterfly waystation with an array of native perennials that range from milkweeds to Joe-pye weed to creeping phlox to coneflowers. A waystation provides host plants for monarch caterpillars and nectar for monarch butterflies, whose numbers have been in decline due to a loss of unmown land. In addition, local master gardeners, who are educational volunteers with Northern Shenandoah Valley Master Gardeners Association through the Virginia extension office, participate in a monitor at Corhaven Graveyard for both native mason bees, due to a statewide program studying these important pollinators, and also the spotted lanternfly, which is an invasive planthopper insect native to southeast Asia, but noticed as far south as Frederick County, Virginia, this past year. Participating in these studies enables Corhaven Graveyard to provide viable data for cutting-edge research.
The flora in the tribute garden are also nutritious for bees, birds, turtles, and other wildlife that are part of the often unseen nature that surrounds Corhaven. Over the course of four years, I’ve witnessed bear scat on the hardwood-mulched walking path; the silent flight of American clearwing moths hovering like hummingbirds over beebalm; a box turtle ready to munch the pear-like fruit of mayapples whose umbrage quilts the graves each spring; honeybees from Tara’s hives happily combing over boneset blossoms—tiny, star-shaped flowers as white as the bees’ boxes on the crest of the hill; walnut caterpillars plopping to the ground from the tree canopy above and writhing into underground cocoons to overwinter. Such a perspective gives new meaning to “so great a cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1, even beyond the sweet souls at rest there.
Nestled on a knoll within 100 feet of Holmans Creek, Corhaven Graveyard is within a riparian buffer, which means how we garden matters. In order to maintain the site via environmentally-friendly methods, many hands are needed. Local master gardeners lead Community Work Days, which enable community volunteers—whether they are working individually or as part of a group—to put best gardening practices in place: weeding out invasives, mulching for water retention and weed buffers, incorporating more hardscapes and flora to alleviate erosion concerns, etc. Neither pesticides nor herbicides are part of Creation Care practices at Corhaven. While this makes maintenance more labor-intensive, it also heightens how meaningful the sacred space feels. These are gardening practices which preserve the memorial plantings of pale violets, introduced by those once mourning the losses of loved ones in the graveyard, while simultaneously recognizing the interconnectedness that human habits have on the environment.
God gave us a mandate to care for nature, not destroy it. I was reminded of this recently while watching with my sons the 2017 PBS documentary, Naledi, about a newborn elephant monitored by conservationists in Botswana. When Naledi’s mother died and later when Naledi had a life-threatening gastrointestinal blockage caused by eating palm leaves, human caregivers stepped in to help. It was for the sole purpose of helping Naledi regain good health before returning her to her wild elephant family on the reservation that led humans to intervene. While this may seem unrelated, imagine you were left in care of a burial ground for human beings once enslaved? Descendants of both the enslaved and the enslavers are no longer living on the land now known as Corhaven. Bill and Tara Haley, who unknowingly purchased a slave cemetery in 2010, are now stewards of this sacred place. The best option for a neglected graveyard, whose history is steeped in pain and racial injustice, is to invite the community to help.
Corhaven Graveyard is a place where the guttural in life is confronted. It’s heart-rending and healing at the same time. It’s a way for humanity to connect around a common cause: witnessing firsthand the degradation left by slavery as an American institution, while actively engaging in a new way to view every single human life regardless of what labels we use for “others,” a new way to care for the environment, a new way for community to be community, together. Will you consider this compassionate call for caregiving, too?
I hope you will consider joining us at one (or several) of our upcoming Corhaven Graveyard Community Work Days:
Monday, January 20
Saturday, April 11
Monday, May 25
Monday, September 7
Saturday, October 31
Workdays begin at 9 a.m. with a brief tour and continue until 1 p.m. (with lunch included at noon). All ages are welcome, but parents must accompany anyone under 18 and work with their children.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Work Days or the Graveyard, please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.