April 23, 2010

Cremation and Burial

The Sangha from Green Gulch Farm, a temple connected to San Francisco Zen Center, with Abbot Steve Stucky and Wendy Johnson performed the most beautiful Cremation Ceremony for Robert Elliot Weinberg. Cremation Ceremonies are often the part that the family doesn’t attend because it is a painful experience to feel the impact of the cremation chamber. The aloneness of it is haunting. The good bye in that way is quite difficult. So, Linda, Rob’s wife and I were steeling ourselves for the impact, but Linda insisted she wanted to be there and when it was done I was glad of her courage and determination because the ceremony helped to sustain us.

Wendy Johnson is the author of GARDENING AT THE DRAGON’S GATE, AT WORK IN THE WILD AND CULTIVATED WORLD, Bantam Dell, 2008. She knew Rob when he lived at Green Gulch and she remembered him well. Rob was one of those persons who never argued or questioned when he was asked to do something. A great Zen student, he would just say “yes” and go forward with the task doing it with complete focus and care. We don’t forget Zen practitioners like this. Wendy had developed the farm and gardens at Green Gulch, she’s the guru or farming and plants and she too is unforgettable as she looks like a blossom that can breathe and talk as a human.

Wendy stayed at Olympia Zen Center when she was on her book tour of the Pacific Northwest just after her book came out. She gave a Wednesday night lecture for us and delivered wise and tender words that seemed to coil like a tendril emerging from the earth.

Abbot Steve arrived with two other priests in training and set up an altar at the foot of the coffin made of soft pine wood with rope handles. Rob loved to sail and he loved ropes. He loved doing sailing knots and deeply appreciated that a knot could be made quite complex and yet could unravel with a single pull at one end. A small Buddha statue almost the same as the one on Rob’s home altar sat against the beauty of the waterfall in the outside garden. In Zen, the waterfall represents Nirvana.

Wendy came with a gigantic basket full of herbs which she had gathered in the morning dew at Green Gulch. Small bunches of various herbs were tied in bouquets. It began to rain and Linda said that this was God weeping and indeed, it felt so.

The six of us stood beside the coffin and chanted The Heart Sutra. Then we said some words of remembrance. I offered the poem of Ryokan, “True all the seasons have moonlit nights...the moon and the earth are one and myself one with them.....my robes soaked in tears.” This is a long Chinese poem that was Rob’s favorite by Ryokan. Others said how they had known Rob. Linda expressed her gratitude for the people and the herbs and flowers.

Then we began to circumambulate the coffin chanting “Enmei Jikku Kannon Gyo.” As we did, we picked bunches of herbs out of the basket and placed them on the coffin. By the time we were finished, the coffin was bedecked, festooned, heaped with fragrant herbs. Then we wheeled the coffin into the crematorium, placed lighted incense sticks in with the herbs and moved the coffin into the cremation chamber. All of it deeply sacred.

The funeral was held the next day in the same room and I officiated at this ceremony. The architecture of Fernwood is Frank Lloyd Wright-ish only with higher ceilings. The floors are dark stone and the art carefully selected. One piece is a large blue saucer incense bowl held up by Giacometti like figures. Another art piece is a three foot sculpture of the Buddha’s hand holding a mudra. Many asked me about the meaning of the mudra which is the thumb touching the fourth finger. All I could answer was that the fourth finger represents grief and the touching the thumb to the grief finger denotes healing.

The ceremony room has a floor to ceiling and wall to wall window with doors on either side opening to a large terrace. The garden at the back of the terrace is a sharp vertical natural planting with a waterfall cascading down its center. When the doors are opened, the room is filled with water music and cool, clean, marine air.

The altar, a high clean-lined rectangular table, held the ceremonial articles: the Buddha, a bowl for stick incense, an incense holder for powdered incense, two candles, a bowl of fruit offerings, a long string of prayer beads made by Rob out of manzanita seeds that appeared after the zendo fire at Tassajara in the 1980s. Also, there was a photograph of Rob with two bouquets of flowers. At the start of the ceremony, his ashes were carried in and placed on the altar by his nephew, accompanied by Linda.

The ceremony included a recitation of the Precepts which Rob renewed on March 21st at his home zendo and given the Buddha name KoYu "Great Cause." And, there was time for people to remember Rob. His older sister Pennie Weinberg spoke of childhood memories, others from his work days at Crissy Field, particularly those who had been his students, and work friends from UC Berkeley remembered Rob’s important contribution to education. Rob’s father, Elliiot Weinberg, had been a friend of Robert Frost, and Rob was named after the poet. I read, “The Road Not Taken” by Frost. The waterfall was the music throughout the ceremony.

A brief reception followed. The family and a few friends had lunch at a restaurant down the hill from the cemetery in Mill Valley. Rob’s ashes will be placed at Tassajara sometime in the future with clergy from Tassajara officiating. It’s still startling to think of Rob gone, but it certainly points toward a reminder of the brevity of life, the need to live well each day, and the importance of caring well for our family, friends and friendships. Rob will be greatly missed by his family and friends. If we each take a lesson from him, something particular that we each learned from him, and we remember to apply it, the qualities he lived will live on in us.

(In the next blog, in a few days, I’ll write about the Joe Stroud event.)