A soft, safe journey

Listening to Byron Ballard conduct the last rites for an indigent county resident, I’m struck by how lyrical her words are — how perfectly they seem to blend with this bright spring day in Riverside Cemetery.

She’s standing in the shade of a tall poplar that’s nestled in the heart of the valley, amid the paupers’ graves. Sunlight is spilling over everything, painting the lush grass into a patchwork quilt of light and shadow. Birds, it seems, are everywhere, some chirping, some bursting into long warbling songs, some absorbed in the ritualized mating dances of the season.

In the middle stands Ballard, dressed in long black robes, her voice calm and clear, reading from a small, ornate book bound in crimson — words I’m sure I’d never heard before, that yet sound hauntingly familiar.

The scene is a far cry from the first pauper’s burial I’d witnessed, last fall. If that event had left me with any impression, it was of how cold and impersonal the whole thing seemed. The person involved had outlived all known relatives and was buried at county expense, in the section of the cemetery set aside for paupers. Unlike any other burial I’d ever attended, there had been no one present — no family, no friends, not even a clergy member to conduct last rites. The deceased came from the crematorium in a cardboard container about half the size of a shoebox, and the whole business took less than 15 minutes to complete. It seemed like just another chore for city workers.

Even cemetery Director David Olson had noted that the burials lacked the solemnity usually associated with death. These people simply died, were cremated, then interred. It was a bureaucratic process, devoid of all emotion, and it left me with a vague, dissatisfied feeling that we, as a society, had somehow let them down.

So I wrote about it [“Discount Death,” Jan. 21, 1998 Xpress], trying to put that feeling into words. Evidently, I succeeded — in one person’s mind, at least — because, a few weeks later, Olson called to say that someone had offered to conduct last rites at the burials, that they had been touched by how lonely the process seemed. I felt good. It seemed I’d made a difference.

Now, however — squatting nearby, taking an occasional photo and listening to Ballard read from her book — I’m coming to terms with a war of emotions inside me. I grew up here in the mountains, raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment. Seeing these people off into the hereafter with a proper burial should instill a sense of peace, of goodness, in me. Instead, I’m struggling, wrestling with the fact that Ballard isn’t exactly your normal sort of minister. She’s an ordained Wiccan priestess in the Celtic Dianic tradition. In short, Byron Ballard is a witch.

I listen closely — seeking what, I’m not sure. The words are surprisingly peaceful and poetic, evoking a sense of harmony I haven’t experienced at any other funeral. Conspicuously absent are the heavy religious influences from my youth. The war inside me rages, reaching new levels.

She delivers the last few lines of the passage in the same clear voice:

“May the blessed soul’s friends guide you

May the helping spirits lead you

May the gatherer of souls call you

May the homeward path rise up under your feet and lead you gladly home.”

I rise, ready to begin the interview, when I suddenly realize that the service isn’t finished. Ballard offers a brief prayer to the mother goddess, then kneels beside the grave, a squared-off hole about 18 inches deep, and begins pulling pieces of plants from her basket.

“This is lamb’s ear, for a soft and safe journey,” she says, dropping the leaf into the grave. Sprigs of rue and rosemary follow. “The rue is for purification. The rosemary is for remembrance,” she explains. In a final gesture, she sprinkles flower petals into the grave.

A few minutes later, the ceremony’s over. Olson places the box of cremains into the grave, where they rest on the flowers and herbs, then shovels earth back in the hole. He tamps the last bit in place, tossing the remaining dirt into the weeds. The three of us then move to a nearby spot in the grass, where Ballard explains why she wants to be involved in such a business.

“I read the article, and it just broke my heart to think of people going into the ground without some kind of ceremony ” she says. “Certainly, in the Wiccan tradition, there is no requirement that words be said so that the soul passes on to the earth god. But I also thought in terms that most of those little old folks who outlive their relatives are women. Because I follow a Dianic tradition [the celebration of deity in exclusively female form], that touched me especially deeply.”

She pauses for a moment, as if searching for words. “It just touched me, and I wanted to do something. You have to understand that this was not a Wiccan burial. This was merely a simple rite of passage to send his soul home.” Ballard goes on to explain that a burial in the Wiccan tradition would have been much more ritualized, with every part worked out to the last detail. It’s an important distinction — partly because the man was not Wiccan, partly because Ballard is a little apprehensive about how her efforts might be received.

“It has to be one of the most misunderstood forms of religious tradition,” she says about her Wiccan beliefs. “But I know that people think outlandish things about Catholics, outlandish things about Seventh Day Adventists, and certainly people think outlandish things about us. If we all communicated better with each other, I think there would be a lot less of that sort of religious prejudice.”

According to Olson, Ballard’s offer to perform such services was the only one to come from the community. “There’s a lot of clergy in this town, a lot of retired ministers,” he notes. “I think it’s amazing that no one else came forward. I was very happy to have anyone come down. Like I told you before, I always felt very cold after one of these burials. This gives me closure.”

A few minutes later, driving away, I realize that the war inside me has abated. I don’t know if my upbringing will allow me to be completely comfortable with what I’ve just witnessed. I do know, however, that Byron Ballard brought a gentle, human touch to the end of an otherwise emotionless journey through the bureaucratic maze these people travel … and that I can’t condemn.

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