I was late for Kent Gormley’s home funeral. A few wrong turns on the way to his remote 40 acres on the east side of the Manzano Mountains delayed my arrival. The strains of a bagpipe tune floated on the air when I finally found all the cars parked along the gravel road. As I followed the signs toward the meadow and house, five guys in jeans and t-shirts straggled out of the woods.
But I didn’t miss everything. A greater part of this story took place the week before. And I helped.
As the memorial service was wrapping up, I picked my way down the path marked with pine cones to the meadow where Kent Gormley had been laid to rest.
A large group of people, ranging in age from babies to seniors, were getting ready to witness the placing of the natural limestone headstone.
Kent’s son Peregrine, or Pere as his friends call him, honored his father’s request to be buried in a pine box beneath his favorite Ponderosa Tree on his own property. The washing and dressing of the body and burial were handled by Pere and two of his closest friends. This gathering was for the greater community that knew and loved Kent Gormley, a remarkable man who lived a remarkable life – and in death, had a remarkable home funeral and burial.
Kent Gormley passed to the spirit world in his sleep on the land which he loved and tended to faithfully for over 30 years. As per his request, he has been buried underneath his favorite tree, a Ponderosa pine.
To know Kent was to love Kent. Each and every time we saw him, coming or going, he offered a hug to all. He didn’t always say a lot with words but he said a lot with his presence. He made a huge difference in many people’s lives through his example of kindness and compassion.
He is survived most immediately by his son, Peregrine, his grandchildren Osha and Ever, and his sister Lon. Peregrine followed in his footsteps in certain ways, building his own home and becoming an accomplished sculptor. To hear Kent talk of his son was a joy, and to meet his son, doubly so. Kent was an unconditionally loving father who was immensely proud of his son.
Some do not know the scope of Kent’s brilliance, erudition, and sensitivity. He completed pre-Med at the University of Minnesota and was accepted into the Mayo Clinic, but he declined in favor of doing Peace Corps work in Botswana, Africa. He had become alarmed at the cutthroat educational system that made it difficult for people to focus on the real reason for being a doctor: helping people.
In Botswana, he continued his lifework of helping people and the environment, teaching high school biology, physics, and chemistry, among other topics. He worked as a field biologist, most notably in Alaska in an attempt to prevent the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, and on a Schistosomiasis study in Africa. He also worked as a horticulturalist, ornithologist, botanist, landscape consultant, tree surgeon, taxidermist, sculptor, carpenter, painter, roofer, mason, and more.
Since 2004, Kent was a board member of the SEED organization and helped to support ongoing dialogues between Indigenous elders and Western scientists. Kent was attracted to Indigenous wisdom in no small part because of Traditional Ecological knowledge.
He indigenized to his own land, caring for all the living things on his property and the interconnected forest land. He took care of his beloved Ponderosa pine, nursing it to health after it encountered a lightning strike he personally witnessed. He cared for every blade of grass in his beautiful meadow and made a relationship with all that surrounded him.
He modeled attention and presence to nature, but he may be remembered most of all for his loving and healing energy to his family and friends. We were all blessed by his presence, and will never forget him.
Rest in peace, Kent. You lived well. You cared; you loved; and we will always love you.
* * * * * * *
When I arrived, Pere was digging the hole to place the stone marker for his father’s resting place. He also dug a smaller, deeper impression for the placement of special natural tributes under the marker – sparkling stones, pine cones, and a large black limestone carving of a figure in a fetal position.
The limestone was originally collected for Pere (a sculptor) by his father… the piece was titled “Loss”. Peregrine’s carving was passed around the attending to gather their thoughts and blessings prior to placing it in the symbolic grave.
A native woman Pat McCabe (Woman Stands Shining) did a silent blessing with offerings to the four directions and sang a song in thanks to the Creator for giving Kent to the gathered community. “It’s a song of thanks, and it also says ‘With my relatives, I’m going to live,'” she explained.
In comments before placing the marker, Pere said, “My father always expressed his desire to be buried beneath this tree and have his nutrients be taken up by the tree. Something that was always important to my father was to leave no trace and to walk softly and carefully. And so with that intention in mind, I’ve gathered a block of limestone from the property and carved his name on the underside.”
The marker read “Kent Gormley – Loved – 1944 to 2012.” The inscription on the marker was destined to be placed facing down in the earth. As the bagpiper played, Pere and his dear friend Martin turned the stone over into the hole and invited the assembled to place handfuls of earth to fill in around the edges.
As the memorial service wound down, the assembled held a potluck supper next to Kent’s hand-made, passive solar home. Potluck dinners were a regular occurrence at Kent’s place.
* * * * * * *
The house, a cozy and beautiful stone-and-timber cottage, was built by Kent’s own hands. He first started the building in 1977. Full of ingenious designs for heating, cooling and natural living, there was a sleeping loft upstairs and the kitchen and living area on the ground floor. A solar shower and workshop stood off to one side of the home, the outhouse off to the other. And the view south pointed directly to Kent’s favorite Ponderosa pine.
Bruce Weiss, who helped Kent with the initial construction of this home, said, “If you took a walk with Kent, he could tell by the turd what animal it was, what it had eaten, all sorts of things. It was like you were walking with God and he was saying, ‘Let me show you this amazing thing, see how it works.'”
As the sun set, a few friends were going to stay over and camp on the land. A bonfire would be started soon. The Perseid meteor shower was peaking that evening. Pere said his father loved the Perseids and would rouse him in the middle of the night to go out and view them. How appropriate the Perseid meteors shot overhead as his community laid him to rest.
* * * * * * *
This story actually started the week before. Because Kent died in his sleep at home, it was considered an “unattended death,” which meant the Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) got involved. They took his body to the morgue and performed an autopsy. While OMI provides a burial transit permit, the autopsy complicated the home burial procedure.
On the referral of a mutual friend, Pere called me the day before he was to pick up Kent’s body for some advice about washing, dressing and placing the body in a casket. Since I’m a member of the Chevrah Kaddisha, the Jewish burial society, I have done this a number of times. My first piece of advice was to wear protective clothing and gloves whenever handling the body. Pere said the protective wear also imparted a small degree of emotional distance which helped in the preparation of his father’s body.
Pere’s father had requested a small diameter hole to be dug so as to minimize root damage to the tree. With this in mind, Pere designed a wooden box according to the tradition of certain indigenous tribes, which bring the body to rest in a fetal position. Given that there had been an autopsy, I cautioned him against doing that. It would be better to keep the body laid out flat to keep the remains as intact as possible. Pere redesigned the casket and built it Friday afternoon. Pere said that keeping the body laid out flat was very helpful advice.
Pere and two friends began digging the grave on Friday evening for a Saturday afternoon burial. They finished digging early Saturday afternoon. Pere and his best friend Martin left to get his father’s body from OMI before the office closed on Saturday afternoon. Pere said that it was logistically straight forward to collect the body from OMI, although the weight of the reality of his father’s death and of what they were about to embark on hit quite hard at this point.
Kent’s body was already encased in a body bag. They brought dry ice and blankets to keep the body cold – too cold in fact. A patch of skin on the back became frozen. He would have added more insulation than the single sheet between ice and skin. Back at the property, they laid the body in the bag on a washing table set up in the meadow. Pere and his two friends, Martin and Don, held hands, grounding and centering themselves and each other for the task they were about to undertake.
Pere opened the body bag by himself, initially with a touch of fear and anxiety. He found a second body bag inside. He took a deep in-breath, opened the bag, and instantly his fear and anxiety dissipated. There was his father – his color was fine, his arms were tanned, he looked very much like himself. However, OMI’s autopsy procedure had cut a large, deep “Y” from his two shoulders down to the pubic bone, and the back of his skull had been opened as well.
He and his friends washed the blood away with washcloths dipped in buckets of water. After drying his body, Pere and his two helpers wrapped Kent’s head and body in four-inch strips of white cotton torn from a queen-sized sheet. They tucked the end of each strip neatly in place. He left his face uncovered and wrapped the entire torso snugly. He wrapped his head around the chin and the back of the head so that Kent could “breathe.”
“He looked normal and natural, just my dad lying on the table,” said Pere.
They lined the casket with bedding of old flannel sheets with a soft down pillow tucked under his neck. A Star Wars pillowcase Pere loved when he was growing up covered the pillow. Along with pictures of kids, grand-kids, the women closest to Kent in his life, other items placed in the casket included wildflowers and herbs from the meadow, walnuts, raisins, chocolate, sunflowers, a ball of clay, and other items. In the casket, surrounded by the flannel sheets with his face showing, it was as if Kent was in bed asleep.
Pere originally didn’t plan to have a viewing due to his understanding from OMI that there would be a powerful odor and that he would be very discolored.”OMI was very helpful in preparing me for the worst,” he said.
However, when Kent was fully prepared, he looked so much like himself and so peaceful, that Pere decided to allow viewing for those who wished. Pere’s 3 ½ year-old daughter, Osha, requested to see “Pappa Kent”. Pere told her, “Pappa Kent’s in the box and we’re going to bury his body today. It’s not all of him though. His spirit has gone elsewhere.” Pere, his wife Laurel, Osha and their 6 month old son Ever, all had a chance to say goodbye to Kent as they viewed him. All in attendance chose to view him. It was a difficult, but positive experience.
Magic ensued as a close group of friends gathered for the burial. A bagpiper played, adding another layer of emotion and release. A friend brought a dozen white roses. It started to rain. Kent considered rain a very special blessing, so they took the lid off the casket to allow his face to be washed by the rain one last time. A double rainbow appeared, and lightning lit up the sky.
When it was time to lower the casket, everyone, young and old, held onto the ropes and gently let it down into the six-foot-deep hand-dug grave. A sunflower and wildflowers were thrown onto the casket, sounding like a drum. Everyone took turns filling the grave until the earth was mounded up on top. The group held hands in a circle. Following the burial everyone went back to the house to share dinner.
One thing that surprised Pere was that the odor of the body was not nearly as powerful as he had anticipated. Once washed, it was hardly noticeable. In retrospect, he might have taken longer with the entire process and done more documentation. Because of his impression from OMI, he thought that the autopsy would accelerate decomposition, therefore he was pushing to complete the process as quickly as possible to avoid further complications. Knowing what he knows now, he wouldn’t have rushed to the same degree.
About the experience Pere said, “It was so valuable to have everyone there, the full spectrum of life, all ages, witnessing the closure of life. It felt right and natural. I would certainly recommend the process, although not for everyone, it was extremely helpful in my letting go.”
“It was really, really positive. I have a huge sense of completion,” said Pere. “The negative charge around my father’s loss is gone. There’s still sadness and pain, but it’s not the same.”
To Readers: If you have memories or additional comments, please share!