Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mickey's and Rhonda's Burial and The SandHill Cranes

I am writing an account of the burial on Saturday, January 08, 2011 for the benefit of all who were not able to attend.  I was honored to be a part of this most unusual and magical ceremony.   

My partner (Patti), Mickey's brother (Dave), his partner (Bonnie), and I drove to Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery shortly after Mickey died to select a burial site.  We wound our way along the one mile path that cuts through the prairie and forest between the Alachua Conservation Trust's timber frame headquarters to the sacred burial land.  As soon as we arrived at the cemetery--which is virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding wild lands--we noticed a pair of Sandhill Cranes standing sentry beneath a sprawling oak tree. 

The Sandhill Crane is an endangered species that migrates from as far away as Siberia to the warmth of Florida each winter.  These birds, with wingspans up to eight feet, are undoubtedly masters of adaptation as they are the longest still-living birds on our beautiful planet.  Fossil records dating back 2.5 million years stand as testimony to the resilience and strength of these great creatures.  The Sandhill Cranes mate for life--travelling together on their long migrations and "dancing" their unique mating dance.  They also are one of the few bird species that sing together joining their haunting warble in what's known as a "unison" bird call because they simultaneously sing with each other rather than the traditional call-and-response of other birds.  Owls, for instance, hoot at each other rather than with each other. 

Mickey and Rhonda's favorite piece of art in the Florida home we all shared was a picture of Sandhill Cranes taken by world-renowned nature photographer, Thomas Mangelsen.  The photo, aptly named "Wings of Peace,"  rests on the mantle over the fireplace in the living room.  Back in the days when Mickey and Rhonda were able to cycle, we would all ride our bikes to Paynes Prairie Nature Preserve in the hope that we could catch sight of the Sandhill Cranes. If you would like to see the "Wings of Peace" photo go to the link listed on the right hand side of this blog. 

It was truly magical to see the Sandhill Cranes welcoming us to the cemetery.  The Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery volunteers dug the grave at the location the cranes selected and later remarked that they were astounded at how close the cranes allowed them to get.   

Only a few hours later, over 50 mourners gathered at the timber frame lodge to begin the trek to the burial grounds.  Most people walked the trail while a few bicyclists formed an honor guard that escorted the hearse.  Mickey and Rhonda were avid cyclists and actually met each other at a bicycling workshop led by their friend, Kathy Cantwell, who establishe--and was recently buried at--Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery. 

We gathered in a 25-foot circle surrounding the open grave as Mickey's body was lain next to it.  Her body was enshrouded in the brightly colored quilt my partner and I gave Mickey and Rhonda on the occasion of their wedding.  We placed Rhonda's ashes in one of the gords Mickey had grown in her garden.  Previously, Mickey had organized a gord-painting party to decorate gords to be hung as birdhouses.   The gord--painted in vibrant reds and yellows by their dear friend, Lynda Lou--kept falling from the tree in our yard.  In this biodegradable gord, Rhonda's ashes were placed so that they could be buried with Mickey.   

Mickey was a spiritual person who identified with Mother Nature rather than an organized religion.  The ceremony honored those beliefs as mourners dressed in jeans and t-shirts stepped forward one by one to take a brilliant yellow sunflower and place it on her shrouded body.  Some read poems, others told stories, and some simply placed the flower in silent tribute.  There were lovely--sometimes funny--stories told about Mickey's spirit of adventure, her devoted love for Rhonda, and her fearless and independent nature.  Other stories featured her generosity, the value she placed on her connection to her community of friends and family, and her reverence for Mother Nature. 

Some parts of the ceremony were planned while others evolved spontaneously as the event proceeded.  One person suggested that we each say a single word that embodied for us the essence of Mickey's spirit.  Next, we all joined hands and simultaneously spoke our individual words into the darkening sky. 
Finally, an Indian Burial Poem was read as her body and Rhonda's ashes were gently lowered together into the ground.  Mourners then worked together to shovel the ground back into its place until the grave was completely covered.  Because Mickey was a pilot and the Sandhill Cranes were guiding this ceremony, a winged elm tree was selected to be planted next to the grave.  The lyrical singing of Hawaiian Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's (IZ) recording of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" accompanied the return of Mickey and Rhonda's remains to the earth.  This was the song played at Mickey and Rhonda's wedding.  You can go to the link at the right to hear it.

Indian Burial Poem
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there, I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow;
I am the diamond glints on the snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain;
I am the gentle autumn's rain.  
When you awaken in the morning's hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.  
I am the soft star that shines at night.  
Do not stand on my grave and cry.
I am not there; I did not die. 

Rhonda and Mickey's friend, Orit, recited The Kaddish in what I assume was perfect Hebrew as Orit is a native of Isreal.  Rhonda's family gathered together in Baltimore at the time of the ceremony to do the same and to light the candle from Rhonda's funeral that had been held there only six weeks prior. 

The mourners placed sunflowers, irises, and gerbera daisies on the mound as K.D. Lang's recordings of "Hallelujah" and "Calling All Angels" played in the background.  You can hear these songs at the links to the right of this post. 

We thought that the ceremony had ended, and then the most amazing thing happened. As the sun was dropping behind pink and orange tinted clouds, we heard the "unison" call of a pair of Sandhill Cranes.  We all simply stood in awe watching as the graceful birds glided in a circle above our group.  It is making me cry just remembering these moments when it seemed that the cranes came to seal the ceremony. 

As we made our way along the path back to our cars we talked about the pair of Sandhill Cranes and the grace and beauty they brought to this entire event--a tribute to the grace and beauty that Mickey and Rhonda brought to each of our lives.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Mickey Died Today

Mickey died at 7:13AM today.  I was at home and thought I was having a dream about climbing into her hospice bed and snuggling up with her.  She was feeling peaceful and loving.  A minute later my phone rang and it was our friends who had spent the night at hospice calling to say that Mickey had just passed away.  The burial will be at 4:30 PM today at the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery.  You can go to the link on this blog to see information about this cemetery and the green burial process.  

Friday, January 7, 2011

Mickey Seems to Be Declining

Today a significant change has begun.  Mickey is no longer communicating.  She is no longer drinking water either.  She is not in pain and seems deeply relaxed.  We are torn between our sadness that the final phase of this transition has begun and our relief that she soon will be free from her tired body.  


As we were sitting in Mickey's hospice room today we glanced out the bay window into the courtyard--and saw a large, chocolate brown donkey strolling by.  She came up to the bird bath at the window's edge and got a drink!  It turns out that Candy Mae is a therapeutic donkey that comes to visit hospice patients.  She is avialable for petting for those able to go to the courtyard or simply for admiration from those confined to bed :-) 

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Mickey has been having a hard day today.  She has begun to throw up more often.  The doctor says that this is to be expected because of the bowel obstruction.  Friends from Deleware, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts are flying in to see her this weekend!  She is surrounded by her brother and his partner and what her brother refers to as, "Mickey's Army" of caregivers.  They are her devoted Gainesville family.  She is being loved and helped by so many people!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Today, the doctor said that the steroids are helping with the swelling of the liver and as a result Mickey is more comfortable and will probably live longer.  Originally, the prognosis was quite dire and she was not expected to live very long.  Today the doctor thought that we might even be able to take Mickey home as she may have several weeks to live.  Tonight she was sitting up and drinking a smoothie--her favorite hospice food!

Burial Plans

Mickey was inspired by her friend, Kathy Cantwell, who died of brain cancer in September.  Kathy was a doctor and was the catalyst for Mickey and Rhonda meeting each other.  Kathy championed the creation of the Prairie Creek Conservation Cemetery and hers was the first green burial there.  It was very important to Mickey that she be buried at Prairie Creek and that she be buried with Rhonda's ashes.  We will have a grave side service followed by a gathering at Mickey's house.  The service will be held within 24 hours of her death and details will be posted on this blog.