Evergreen Cemetery: Muslim Burials and the Founder of the City

by Tim Gilmore, 5/4/2015

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“Everyone loved Ali,” Alaa says. Despite the death sentence he’d received in the form of a brain tumor, Alaa’s young nephew “always put a smile on everyone’s face.”

Ali died a week after his birthday, early December, 2013. It was the hardest day of Alaa’s life.

I’m still confused about how a cemetery can legally refuse to bury adherents of a particular religion just because that religion mandates certain burial practices.

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While it seems a clear civil rights violation, that refusal, by every Jacksonville cemetery but Evergreen, ironically places Jacksonville’s Muslim graves in the same prestigious location as Isaiah Hart, the city’s founder, and the city’s most prominent old family names: the Cummers, the Daniels, the Browards, the L’Engles.

If Parsis—the wealthy and highly literate minority in India that dates its history to a migration from Persia (“Parsi” actually means “Persian”), modern-day Iran (where Parsis are called Zoroastrians), more than a thousand years ago—insisted on replicating the ancient Tower of Silence from Mumbai, India’s largest city (with nearly 21 million people), in Jacksonville, I’d understand conservative concern.

Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, like Tibetan sky burials and Crow Nation platform burials on stilts and in trees in what’s now Montana, offer the dead to scavengers from the sky, buzzards and smaller carrion birds, to keep from profaning the earth while recycling death into the living.

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But though there’s a carillon in Evergreen Cemetery, a Confederate contingent, a black quadrant, and a Jewish “ghetto,” there’s no Tower of Silence amidst the 80,000 graves spread across Evergreen’s 167 acres.

What Jacksonville’s Muslims require for the burials of those they love doesn’t seem radical enough to refuse, or even question, and the only thing more personal than caring for the dead is caring for the sick.

Jacksonville’s Muslims ask that their deceased be cleansed and wrapped in a plain cloth called a kafan and that the body be buried facing Mecca, birthplace of Mohammad and holiest city in Islam, toward which all Muslims should face while praying.

Pilgrims attended the annual Hajj at Mecca. The Kaaba is the black cube in the northeast quadrant of the image. Courtesy https://bestislamicimages.wordpress.com

Pilgrims attending the annual Hajj at Mecca. The Kaaba is the black cube in the northeast quadrant.

The way Alaa explains it is that Ali needed to be buried, without a casket, facing the Kaaba, Islam’s most sacred site, the cube-shaped building in the middle of Al-Masjid al-Haram, the great mosque at the center of Mecca.

Each aspect of Islam’s Kaaba-directed rituals is intensely physical, earth-based. During prayer, the knees must touch the earth, then the forehead touches ground. For prayer or for burial, the Kaaba is the gravitational center of the earth. And one of the Five Pillars of Islam is that every able Muslim make the Hajj at least once in a lifetime, the physical pilgrimage to Mecca, which requires circling the Kaaba seven times with more than a million other pilgrims.

Though I imagine it’s the lack of a casket that seems so radical to the administrators of other cemeteries, I’d much rather be buried that way myself, my elements allowed to return to the earth and nourish the trees, than to be preserved as a puddle of goo for millennia in a titanium coffin.

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Evergreen Cemetery is one of the loveliest gardens in Jacksonville and that environment is precisely what Islam requires.

“The dead spend their time at their graves,” Alaa tells me, “until the world ends before being judged by God.”

For the righteous, however, the grave is a kind of Paradise prior to Judgment.

Alaa says, “We visit the grave at least once a week to prove we haven’t forgotten and to pay our respects.”

The Evergreen irony is that this cemetery, this necropolis, founded in 1880, originally segregated its deaths much as its living city segregated lives, yet the accidental bequest of those divisions is Evergreen’s 21st century acceptance of Muslim ritual.

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Alaa has seen Evergreen’s Jewish section, but she couldn’t walk into it. She felt she’d be trespassing on someone else’s culture. She feels all culture to be haunted.

Jewish headstones frequently bear Stars of David and the blessing “Shalom.” Many epitaphs are in Hebrew letters and some use the Hebrew Calendar, according to which the Gregorian Calendar year 1950 is the year 5710.

Some of the oldest black graves go back to the turn of the 20th century. Some of those buried here were freedmen, former slaves. The graves are scattered near the fences and the railroad tracks, down cemetery lanes named after trees and flowering shrubs, Camellia or Mimosa, instead of the lanes named for prominent families. The epitaphs are often hand-chiseled.

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Century-old African-American graves lie to the side of Evergreen’s Mount Olive Drive. So many historic A.M.E. (African Methodist Episcopal) churches, old black schools, and originally freedman neighborhoods are called Mount Olive because of the historic Black American self-association with Ancient Israel. Black slaves had been converted by their Southern Baptist and Methodist slavemasters and easily appropriated the Old Testament enslavement of the Israelites by Ancient Egypt as a metaphor for slavery in America.

The Mount of Olives stems out from old Jerusalem. While it takes its name from ancient olive groves, it holds more than 150,000 Jewish graves interred across the last 3,000 years. Mount Olive’s Chapel of the Ascension, part ancient Christian church, part Islamic mosque, since both religions revere Christ, claims the site where it’s believed Jesus ascended into Heaven.

Though Evergreen numbers a little more than half as many graves, the diverse communities of its dead mirror similar amalgamations. Its African-American burials alone connect the city’s Christian, Jewish, Muslim and indigenous African traditions.

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And since Jacksonville, as southern refuge from northern winters, was largely a Yankee town during the Civil War, Evergreen contains a number of Southern “Union” graves and monuments, but also several chalk-white markers dedicated to those who fought for the Confederate States of America.

Railroad tracks reflect that division by cutting the cemetery in two. Because Evergreen was once two graveyards separated by train tracks, trains rumble through the center of the cemetery daily, rattling the dead in their nearby coffins.

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Despite the racism mapped historically across the graveyard, Alaa says that Jacksonville’s Iraqis are grateful that Evergreen allows them to pay their rightful respects, “because otherwise, Ali’s body would have had to be shipped in a plane all the way back to the city where he was born,” which contradicts the main reason for the ritual. “The body should be at peace when it is put into the ground,” she says, “so he will be able to rest.”

She loves Evergreen Cemetery as sacred earth, because Muslim respect for the dead, she says, “is as important to us as prayer.”

She tells me that Muslims are not allowed to forget their dead. Their constant love, respect, and remembrance is a requirement of the faith.

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Lost in the byzantine turnings of brick paths across dirt roads beneath old oaks, I say hello to a groundskeeper who’s worked here for 12 years.

“When I first started this job,” B.J. tells me, “I walked to work. I lived back there on 44th Street. I’d come in when it was the morning, but really it was still night.”

She stands, long-haired and heavy, against her E-Z-GO golf cart, and says, “I always saw this man walk into the cemetery ahead of me. He was short and heavy. He wore a nice suit, like with a tie and lapels, but his suit always looked like it was wide open down the middle in the back.”

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I repeat these words to her as a question, to make sure I understand, and she affirms the image.

“He’d keep walking in front of me for a ways, then he’d walk right into a tree and disappear. I could never find him after that.”

When I ask her whom she thinks he was, she says, “Well, one day I yelled at him, just screamed and screamed at the top of my lungs, and he went into the tree, and I never saw him again after that and never had the chance to find out.”

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In addition to visiting Ali’s grave regularly, Alaa’s family and neighboring families pay Ali special homage every Thursday, which carries its own sacredness as the day before Friday, the Sabbath.

“My parents would always tell us that every Thursday night, each soul buried leaves the grave and goes and watches the loved ones,” Alaa says.

“Thursday is the day we read to the dead from the Quran and also pray to God to forgive all sins.”

While I, atheist or agnostic or panentheist (not just pantheist—there’s a significant difference) or whatever I am—I’m not that concerned with figuring out my nonexistent category—having grown up Southern fundamentalist Baptist—am no more offended by an Iraqi or Gambian student wearing a hijab than a native Floridian wearing Doc Martens, and try constantly to model a pluralist and democratic openness to all my students, I can’t help but respect any one individual’s most intimate feelings about someone she’s loved who’s died.

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That condition brings me Alaa’s connection to Ali and Evergreen as lyrical, poetically lovely, transcendent.

Alaa says Jacksonville’s Muslims offer their thanks to Evergreen by volunteering community service hours. Jacksonville’s masjids, or mosques, help clean the cemetery, donate money for the graves of families who can’t afford to bury their dead, and offer Evergreen Cemetery general funds for upkeep.

Whatever I believe or don’t, any of the 100 billion of us who have lived on this one living planet called earth would be wonderfully lucky to have someone like Alaa love us so much, and I love Alaa for her love for Ali.