A NONTRADITIONAL BURIAL - Tribute To Ted Hotchkiss

By Mary Wildfire

Before dawn on Wednesday, October 24, my neighbor Ted Hotchkiss died suddenly at the age of 75. By midnight of the same day, he was buried in a grave on his own land, dug by his neighbors and friends. This is how it used to be, and still can be in West Virginia and ten other states. It was so different from the only other funeral I've ever attended—which was the usual Modern American affair complete with embalming, formal viewing, and direction by professionals—that I'm compelled to write about it, to let people know they have a choice. I also want to write about it here to publicly thank the people at Stump Funeral Home, for being so consistently decent and considerate with people who had chosen not to be customers.

When the EMS people were unable to revive Ted and declared him dead, they brought him to Stump's because John Stump is the county coroner. He was not able to issue a death certificate and release the body to Ted's wife Sarah right away, because with Ted having no previous history of heart disease, there was a legal necessity for an official investigation…and unfortunately the sheriff was in court all that day. Thus, although we got a more than ample grave dug in barely three hours (the east-facing site Sarah chose turned out to be rockless, soft earth), we then had to wait several hours. Meanwhile, more and more people heard the news and came. There were people from the West Fork Garden Club, which Sarah founded, and people from the meditation group which meets in Spencer, and people from the Calhoun Writers Guild, as well as other neighbors and friends. Sarah later said she felt as though she had been floated through that day on the caring of all those people.

I went to the funeral home with Sarah, along with her (and Ted's) friend Chip from Morgantown and Mark Myers. There we met Ralph Donato and Tom Kellam, who had built a box for Ted (the Stumps said it was the nicest homemade box they'd ever seen). The Stumps let Sarah watch as they put Ted's favorite shirt on him and tucked two special mementos into the box before sealing it. She knew to bring these things because Mr. Stump had tipped me off that it would not be legal to open the box once it left the funeral home; so she wouldn't have been able to add anything later.

This was something I hadn't known. I had taken a class called Death and Dying at Glenville college, where I'd learned the law pertaining to this kind of burial, and had talked to Ted and Sarah about it. They'd had a conversation about the details just a couple of months ago. So when Sarah was faced with the unbelievable and horrible reality of Ted's death Wednesday morning, at least she knew what she had to do.

You can bury someone on your own land in this state, as long as you have at least five acres. The body must be in a box of some kind and the grave must be at least 4 ½ feet deep. With no embalming, the burial must be accomplished within twenty-four hours of death.

It might be that you have people who have to travel more than a few hours to attend a funeral in your family; it might be that it's very important to some of them to view the remains. Then you need embalming. Or it might be that you prefer to turn everything over to a professional and don't mind paying for it. But if not, you might want to consider doing it the old-fashioned way. I always assumed I'd prefer this mainly to avoid spending a lot of money, but Wednesday I saw some other reasons.

When Sarah's neighbors gathered to dig the grave, and all of them were there including three who had to cancel work—one even returned from Charleston—there was something right about that. When we came back from the funeral home after dark, to see about fifty people waiting, many of them holding candles…that was a moment of intense beauty.

We all walked to the grave. Someone had set up tiki lights, and someone had put a wreath on the pile of topsoil at the head of the grave. As the coffin was carried to the grave and lowered on a stout rope, people began singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Ken Lewis of the meditation group had printed off copies of a Buddhist prayer, which we all read aloud. Laurence White of Chloe then read a Baha'i one. Others sang Christian spirituals, and Bob Siemer yelled, "Adios, amigo!" Clouds chased each other across the half moon. Sarah tossed the first handful of earth into the grave, and then people started to work with the shovels.

When someone dies, there are a few things the community needs to do. They need, as individuals, to pay their last respects to the dead. They need to support the bereaved. They need to connect, in whatever way, with the spiritual world. In all this, the community draws together around the hole that has opened up in its midst. It seems to me that a stranger leading events is a foreign element that impedes this coming together; and what made Wednesday special was the absence of any impediment. The community came together in a way that felt strong and direct and natural and very real. And by burying Ted in the same way people have done it for thousands of years, somehow it felt as though we connected with all those people who've done it before us, with all our ancestors, with the whole cycle of births and deaths …a very comforting feeling.


Ted was a man True to himself and all those he met along life's way,
He was Humble and kind with sincere regards, each and every day.
Educated and Effulgent were qualities he possessed, which made him stand out like a star
Orderly and Outright, he went about tasks to Overcome any Obstacles there are.
Discerning and Diligently he prioritized his life and treasured SARAH as if she were gold
Observing the beauty in natural things as the seasons of life did unfold.
Resolved and with Resilience, he made his mark and never looked back with regret;
Eagerness and Empathy Enshrined his being in a way that we will never forget.

Fortitude, his strength and his gentleness combined in such a way, both physically and Spiritually, to make him a special being; For he didn't have to shout or make noise for attention; his formidable, awesome self was Exposed for seeing.

Happiness was evident in his voice and his smile;
Openness and Optimism walked with him each mile.
Tenderness Touched each heart he met, and Toughness bound them Together;
Creativity molded the many objects he made, and they endured in any weather.
Hope and faith were part of his life,
Keeping on his path, he surmounted struggles and strife.
Instinctively and Intuitively, he lived one day at a time,
Smiling sublimely as each hill he did climb.
Stealth fully, some how, somewhere, he will meet us once again some day, He will make sure that the path is clear and ready for our stay, And he'll be there waiting to welcome us and show us the way.

With love and prayers,
Winifred and Laurence W. White
October 26, 2001