Business at the Quaker bookstore near Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where Jerimy Pedersen works has not been great in recent years, but things at the Quaker cemetery where he digs graves part time with his sometime bookstore colleague, cemetery manager Graham Garner, have gotten rather lively.
Just three years ago, Friends Southwestern Burial Grounds, founded in 1860 in Upper Darby and not far from Main Line Philadelphia, was running at a deficit. Revenues from the interest of a dwindling endowment coupled with income from the annual burials—which could be as few as two—did not cover routine maintenance. Wrought-iron fences needed to be painted; the acres of lawn with some 4,000 graves required regular mowing; and the 150-year-old caretaker’s house, well, it needed to be taken care of.
Then in July of 2012, just as the not-for-profit Urban Land Institute of Philadelphia was completing its study on how the cemetery might become solvent, a Muslim family from the neighborhood approached Garner about burying their 21-year-old son, Rafiq Jamison, there.
“It was a very tragic story,” Garner said. “He worked around the corner as a security guard, and he had been shot to death on the job.”
Islamic law, or sharia, like Jewish law, requires that the dead be buried expeditiously. It prohibits both embalming and cremation. It also forbids the use of grave vaults, those poured concrete walls inside a grave which are fairly standard internment practice and said to prevent graves from sinking over time.
The more difficult sharia stipulation for the average cemetery to honor—and probably the one that makes it difficult for funeral directors helping Muslim families find a place to bury their dead—is the requirement that the deceased be buried in a shroud without a coffin, and that the body be lain on its right shoulder facing the qiblah, or Mecca.
Garner said there were extensive discussions with local imams to ensure sharia burial rites were properly followed; and it would be more than a year—not until October 2013—before the Friends cemetery had its second Muslim burial. Since that time, some 170 Muslim burials have taken place in a specially designated section of the graveyard.
Eventually Garner hired his bookstore colleague, Jerimy Pederson, to help with this labor-intensive excavation that apparently requires some finesse.
“We do have a small backhoe,” Garner said. “But we find it’s actually easier to dig the graves by hand. You can make sure that walls are straight.”
The men start by carving an approximately 7- by-3½-foot rectangle that is dug to the depth of just over 3 feet. The next step requires “going in at the sides” as they go down another 2 feet or so, creating a kind of cove where the shrouded body will go.
“The niche at the bottom definitely needs to be done by hand,” Pedersen said. “We have been told by imams and funeral directors that we do a nice job.”
“Jerimy always digs deeper than I do because he is younger,” Garner said.
The 17-acre tract of rolling grassland—spotted with close-to-the-ground simple white stone markers and trees, many as old at the graveyard itself—was never exclusively Quaker. Still, Quaker prohibitions against fancy tombstones, statues, crosses and elaborate landscaping—and an historic but no longer enforced prohibition against funeral directors, large processions, and the recitation of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” at graveside—no doubt scared off many with less-than-Spartan tastes.
There has nevertheless been a long tradition of people from the surrounding neighborhood choosing to be buried in this sylvan landscape with a community garden, which most neighbors treat as a park. Some of the older, stalwart families from the area, including the Whites and the Watkinses, are buried here, Garner said. So is the founder of the American Friends Service Committee and winner of the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize, Henry Joel Cadbury, who is related to the Quakers of the British chocolate empire.
Upper Darby Township was granted in 1681 by King Charles II to that ultimate Quaker, William Penn. Large farms and mills evolved along its many creeks. In the early 19th century, resident Quakers as early abolitionists provided secure stops on the Underground Railroad.
By the mid-20th century the township had transitioned to row houses for white working-class families. More recently, according to the Urban Land Institute (ULI) of Philadelphia, the neighborhood has become even more densely populated and in need of parking, a use for which the cemetery has often been eyed. The large and very diverse immigrant population has spawned a fervent younger generation of soccer players and soccer teams, who sometimes use the graveyard to practice.
An October 2013 ULI report dismissed calls for conversion of some the cemetery's land to a parking lot or a soccer field, and instead counseled the Friends cemetery to do more burials. It advised active outreach to those of the Muslim faith—something that had already serendipitously begun to happen. And the report urged Friends to market its capabilities to the growing movement for “green burials.”
In fact, old-style Quaker simplicity in burial practices nicely parallels some of the reforms green burial activists are seeking. Environmentalists are increasingly speaking out against the routine use of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, for embalming. There are objections as well to the mahogany and other rain forest woods frequently chosen for pricey coffins. Others take issue with the underground concrete employed in grave vaults, seeing it as unnecessary and wasteful. The large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides used on the vast acreage of cemetery landscaping are also a concern.
Garner said his first green burial at Friends was a memorable one. The father of one of the community garden volunteers had been ill and requested to be buried there, but he died at the time of a blizzard. Without formaldehyde as a preservative, the body must go into the ground within 48 hours. And so Garner found himself out digging in 24 inches of snow—too deep to get a backhoe through.
“It was actually a very touching service in the end,” he said.
Friends is now operating in the black. Some repairs have been made on the house. The small backhoe is a recent acquisition, and they will shortly invest in a 30-year-old electric tractor for plowing the snow. They have also purchased what Garner called some "new expensive but very effective shovels." Space remains for an additional 3,000 graves, including in the meadow where people still occasionally play soccer, toss a Frisbee, or practice their golf swing.
Garner said his extensive experience in service of the dead—nearly 15 years at this point—does not make him want anything of the sort for himself. He wants to be cremated and have his ashes scattered.
“After digging all those holes for so long,” he said, “I just don’t want to put anyone else through that trouble for me.”