Langley’s ash garden provides an alternative to traditional burial

Ten years ago, four Langley women planted the seed for what has become one of Langley’s most beautiful places — the ash garden at the Woodmen Cemetery.

Mully Mullaly

LANGLEY — Ten years ago, four Langley women planted the seed for what has become one of Langley’s most beautiful places — the ash garden at the Woodmen Cemetery.

When their friend was sick and dying, several Langleyites banded together to share this journey with her. Some ran errands, others sat with her and talked about death, others helped with her care.

“It brought dying right in our faces,” said Lynn Hays, one of the four “Ash Sisters” who created the new ash garden.

When their friend passed away and was cremated, the group met on the beach and celebrated her life singing every rock-n-roll song they could think of.

But what to do with the ashes of their friend? They imagined a place that would be serene, beautiful and feel like home.

As a group, Hays, Peggy Kimbell, Shanti Loustaunou and Mully Mullally bought several plots in the new portion of the Langley cemetery and began creating a place from their imagination, planting fragrant flowers and plants. Hays contributed stone columns and a bolder on which people can memorialize their loved ones.

The name of their friend became the first one to be engraved on the rock, along with the names of Hays’ parents, and their ashes were scattered in the beautiful garden.

Hays said the experience brought them face-to-face with their own mortality.

“We are at an age when our friends die,” Hays said. “We were trying to think of a spot for ourselves.”

Mullally added that their generation is seeking a different relationship with life and death.

“Our generation brought birth back into our lives. Now, we’re looking at a responsible way to deal with death,” she said.

The Ash Sisters said they hope the ash garden is viewed by the living as a place to remember their loved ones, but also as a beautiful park, open space for walking and a place to celebrate life. It’s a place for people of all faiths.

“I view it as a room within the cemetery that can become a huge gift to the community,” Hays said.

“We really want to keep it vibrant,” she added. “Pardon the pun — it could really be a dead place.”

And people have taken to the place, visiting the garden. Among them is a small Buddha figurine that has begun to appear in different places in the ash garden, the women said. Somebody places the statue in a place for a few days, then the little guy moves on and sometimes he disappears all together, the Ash Sisters said.

“It’s neutral. It’s welcoming to everybody,” Mullally said.

It’s also important to the women that the ash garden is available to all, no matter how much money they have. People can take advantage of the garden by buying space on a stone for a name and many other ways. The city of Langley, which is responsible for the administrative things related to the cemetery, helps tailor the right package for people’s budgets.

“So nobody has to be turned away because they can’t afford it,” Hays said.

People can also suggest other ways to memorialize their loved ones. The group is working on a “wish list,” including stone benches or other rocks that people could buy and contribute in the name of their family members.

The garden also helps preserve space for generations to come, they said. Traditional burial plots take up much space, but ashes scattered in the garden don’t.

“We are the guardians of it. We’re protecting this place, allowing it to evolve,” Mullally said.

An official dedication of the Ash Garden is planned for 1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26. Mayor Paul Samuelson will lead a ribbon-cutting ceremony and a celebration will follow.

The Ash Sisters will be on hand and the cemetery board, as well as members of the Friends of Woodman Cemetery to give tours and talk about this special place.

These groups keep the cemetery running, but more help from the community is needed.

Cary Peterson, president of Friends of Woodman Cemetery, said the cemetery is a place of peacefulness and reflection in an often-stressful world full of distractions.

“It’s a place where people can remember, and express their love,” she said. “When so many cemeteries these days are very restrictive, geared up for low maintenance and easy mowing, the Langley cemetery is a modern-day rarity where people can create a personalized grave site with plantings and above-ground headstones.”

She said the cemetery board’s commitment to preserving and continuing the character of the cemetery makes it more expensive to maintain.

“This is why volunteers play such an important role in the care of the cemetery, helping the city to keep it such a special place for the community,” she said.

City Councilwoman Rene Neff, who is the council liaison to the cemetery board, recalled why she has become so involved in keeping the historic cemetery going.

“Not long after our family moved to Langley, some close friends moved next door to the cemetery and I found myself meandering there quite often,” she said.

“One spring on our Sunday walk, we watched the baby owlets that lived in the entry tree next to the road. Their little snow-white heads would peak out of the huge nest and we would all stop and watch them for awhile. That was proof to me that this place was indeed a magical place.”

Three years ago when she joined the Langley City Council, she volunteered to work with the cemetery board.

“Since that time I have gotten to know the various citizens who have served on this little board and realized there is quite a large community of folks out there who care for and love this special place,” she said.

“Under the guidance and caring hands of the Friends of Woodmen Cemetery and Langley’s Cemetery Board, the cemetery has grown and expanded in recent years.”

And she has come to realize that the work has been well worth it.

“More and more I am visiting friends, former students, and acquaintances who are resting peacefully in the shade of the firs, or nestled among the ferns,” she said. “As the ash garden has come into its own, it has been my pleasure to participate in the planning and dream along with the others who continue to create this lovely garden and resting place.

“Someday, hopefully far in the future, my friends and family can visit me there among the standing stones and salal,” Neff added.

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