Hands dig into soft ground. Dirt is shuffled around as grass is pulled. The late afternoon sun beats down upon each of our backs as we work on our hands and knees, only utilizing the simple tools of water and baking soda to clean marble slab after marble slab. There are dates ranging as far back as the 1850s to as recently as 2021. Lifespans that ended too soon mixing with those that lived almost a century. Simplistic designs lay next to towering pillars. Yet, every one of its residents is equally buried under 6 feet of earth.
For well over a year now, the many religious studies majors here at HSU have come together, under the direction of professor Sara Hart, to help clean the tombstones at Greenwood Cemetery in Arcata, a weekly endeavor that has taken place almost every Friday since its first conception. The event was originally created as a volunteer opportunity in association with the Arcata Veteran Hall for one of Dr. Hart’s classes, in which students would help tend specifically to the veteran graves of the area. Now, in partnership with the American Legion Auxiliary, the event has expanded to include any and all graves located within the Greenwood Cemetery.
“I’m a big believer in service learning,” Hart said, expressing her inspiration in starting this practice. “I think service-learning is crucial to a full and flourishing intellectual experience.”
Madeline Wilson, a religious study major at HSU, was one of the volunteers there at the time. She explained how she has been participating in the Friday graveyard clean-ups for well over eight months now, often bringing her friends and roommates along when they express interest.
“[My friends have all had] differing responses, one of them decided that for his mental health that he needed to tap out after 15 minutes,” Wilson said. “He came, witnessed what we were doing, and went ‘this is a little too much for me’ and decided to walk home. A few others [however] have participated and really gotten into it!”
For many who have come and continue to come to the event, strong emotional responses are not uncommon. These emotions, however, are not always negative and as Dr. Hart often expressed, are healthy and necessary to confront at times.
“It’s been powerful for a lot of students,” Hart said. “I think in some ways this makes it easier, to [be able] put a physical face on an otherwise very scary mysterious thing. [It] makes it feel very embodied and earthy and natural… It reminds you that everyone is going to end up somewhere.”
When asked what brought Wilson here time and time again, they explained the spirituality of it.
“I feel really compelled by the energy exchange of it, by the physical attention to the tombstones, to the folks of the past, and to history more broadly,” Wilson said.
Overall the reaction that the group has received by passersby has been overwhelmingly positive. Many of those visiting in grief and mourning instead find some amount of comfort in knowing at least some people are looking after the resting place of their loved ones.
“A few months ago we had someone who was about to bury his brother the coming weekend,” Wilson said. “He came on site and talked to Dr. Sara for a long long time and then was talking to us as a group for a bit. That conversation was compelling, hearing about his own grief [and] his response about burying his brother…”
While the event is targeted towards those in the religious studies department at HSU, those in the public interested in joining are absolutely welcomed to join as they please, even just to simply be with the group, no grave cleaning is explicitly required. Before saying my goodbyes, I asked if Dr. Hart has any words of encouragement to those interested in joining.
“Everyone ends up here someday…” she said, Wilson quickly adding an additional “Might as well make it look pretty.”