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'Way over yonder'

Her body at rest, her spirit freed, Marilyn Myers is buried on her Tennessee farm. The ceremony, from start to finish, is just as she had planned.

By JEANNE MALMGREN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2000


CELINA, Tenn. -- As cold rain fell steadily, Boomer Ford wielded a pickax overhead, then heaved it into the red earth of Tennessee. He was standing in a rectangular hole six feet deep.

Over and over, with each swing of the ax he grunted, not so much with the physical effort but with the sweet agony of digging his mother's grave.

Finally he paused.

"See this beautiful view she'll have for eternity?" he asked, looking across a sweep of meadow toward the rounded profiles of tree-fringed hills. "That's why I picked this spot."

It was Saturday morning, two hours before Marilyn Myers' funeral. One hundred people, many from St. Petersburg and some from as far away as California, had gathered at Sweet Rock Bottom, Marilyn's farm.

As the day wore on, they would carry her casket down a country road and through a rushing creek. They would speak their memories of her and wail. They would drink Guinness Stout and sing songs of the '70s.

Hearts would break, and mend, and break again.

Marilyn, who succumbed to cancer at 50, was the subject of a series during January and February in the St. Petersburg Times called "Dancing in the Twilight." In it she shared her thoughts about dying and how she hoped to embrace that process with joy. She died March 5 at her St. Petersburg home.

During her last months, Marilyn made meticulous plans for what she called not a funeral but a celebration of her "spirit reunion." On Saturday her family and friends carried out those plans amid tears, laughter and hugs. On a late winter day of blooming daffodils and forsythia, the last chapter of an unusual life came to a close.

Before dawn Saturday, Boomer arrived in a rented Ford Windstar minivan. He and a friend had driven 13 hours from St. Petersburg with precious cargo: Marilyn's body, packed with 100 pounds of dry ice and cedar shavings in her handmade wooden coffin.

The body, in accordance with Marilyn's wishes, was not embalmed and had been refrigerated at a St. Petersburg funeral home. It could have been shipped to Tennessee, but Boomer wanted to do the honors himself -- a last trip with his mother.

Daughter-in-law Dulcie, wife of Marilyn's other son, Charris, prepared the one-room log cabin where Marilyn's casket would rest before the service.

In each corner, branches cut from a flowering plum tree were set in vases. Beeswax candles flickered in the windowsills. A rough-hewn wooden table serving as an altar was filled with framed photos of Marilyn, bleached animal bones and a set of brass "singing bowls."

In front of the table was Marilyn's coffin, the lid removed, a wreath of dried herbs and flowers leaning against it. All that was visible in the casket was a bed of pink cedar shavings. Deep inside lay the body, wrapped in crimson silk and strewn with the special things Marilyn had requested: dried lavender and rose petals; peat moss; tiny shells and quartz crystals; a scepterlike object called a dorje, used in Tibetan prayers; an ancient shard of pottery unearthed on the farm; and a bird's nest filled with a carved blue agate egg, which to Marilyn represented the flight of her spirit to freedom.

As guests began to arrive, Dulcie turned on a CD player and the mournful strains of Samuel Barber's Adagio floated out. Marilyn constructed the soundtrack for her funeral, painstakingly creating a CD that contained all her favorite music, from Emmylou Harris and Aretha Franklin to opera singer Andrea Bocelli.

For more than an hour, as the temperature fell into the 40s, Marilyn's loved ones gathered under a striped tent next to the log cabin, moving down a buffet line of vegetarian lasagna, bean salads, homebaked bread and jugs of wine.

The crowd was a sea of blue denim, muddy boots, long gray beards, and women with babies cradled in fringed shawls. Children and dogs ran loose. Someone strummed a banjo.

About 2:45 p.m. Marilyn's coffin appeared at the cabin door, borne on the shoulders of eight men -- Marilyn's sons, her two former husbands and four friends.

The rain had stopped. It was time for Marilyn's last journey.

The procession started out quietly, then broke into song.

  • Take Me Home, Country Roads.

  • Lean on Me.

  • You've Got a Friend.

  • Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

  • When they reached the first of three places where the winding gravel road crossed Mill Creek, no one hesitated. The pallbearers splashed into the frigid water and the line of mourners followed, singing loudly.

    Another creek crossing, and then another. Shoes and pant legs were soaked.

    The procession wound almost a mile through a clover meadow and up the hill. Carefully, slowly, the coffin was set on the ground. The mourners drew into a semicircle.

    Marilyn's friend Janet Maddox of St. Petersburg stepped toward the center of the circle and began singing a Carole King song.

  • Way over yonder

  • Is a place that I know

  • Where I can find shelter from hunger and cold.

  • Way over yonder,

  • That's where I'm bound.

  • "Sweet Holy Spirit," prayed another friend, Kym Farmer, "We ask you to come into this circle of hearts, and support us in our sorrow and grief. We ask to have our hearts cracked open. We ask to be willing to celebrate, we ask to be willing to remember."

    Marilyn's sons and daughters-in-law stood among a clump of daffodils, their heads bowed. Julia Ford, Boomer's wife, gently rocked her son, Shane -- Marilyn's first grandchild -- in a baby carrier on her chest, a plaid flannel shirt draped over him to block the wind.

    When it was time for Marilyn's sons to eulogize their mother, Boomer, 28, stepped forward first. He stood next to the coffin, hands in his pockets. He spoke about preparing his mother's body at the funeral home, how he was afraid that would leave him with a painful visual memory he would not be able to erase from his mind.

    "But she taught me to face my fear, and then step into it."

    He raised his eyes to the sky and paused for a moment. His face turned dark red. Then a cry rose up, a wounded animal cry.

    "I LOVE YOU, MOM."

    His anguished words bounced off mountain ridges and circled around the valley like a wave, echoing several times. Then there was no sound but the wind.

    Boomer walked back to the circle and embraced his brother.

    Charris, 30, was next. He knelt and stroked the coffin. Charris lived with Marilyn on this property for nearly 10 years, helping her fulfill her dream of an organic farm.

    "I loved my mom," he said. "She was a gift to me. She was a burden to me. She was an inspiration to me. She was awesome and she was awful, a blessing and a curse."

    One by one, other people spoke. They lauded Marilyn's honesty, her artist's eye, her doggedness in personal relationships.

    "She would never let anything go," said one woman. "She just kept at you and kept at you."

    People laughed softly, nodding.

    Finally it was time to lower the casket into the ground. As the pallbearers moved toward it, Dulcie began a spoken chant and the crowd picked it up.

    "THANK YOU, Marilyn ... THANK YOU, Marilyn ... THANK YOU, Marilyn."

    Charris walked to the pile of dirt and stuck a shovel into it. He kissed the dirt, then tossed it into the grave. There was a dull thud. Someone groaned. Dulcie broke into heaving sobs and Boomer sank to his knees, his face in his hands.

    The crowd was swaying, crying, shivering. Someone else started a song. It reverberated around the circle in a whisper, as more dirt hit the coffin.

  • Listen, listen, listen

  • To my heart song.

  • I will never forget you,

  • I will never forsake you.

  • Other people stepped forward and grabbed shovels. In a half-hour there was a smooth mound over Marilyn's grave. Some of the mourners knelt and pushed tulip bulbs into the newly tilled soil. Others tromped up and down on the grave to firm the ground. Some even danced.

    Kym Farmer offered a final prayer.

    Now these mountains that she embraced will embrace Marilyn, Farmer said. Her spirit will fly free.

    "And she'll dance! Dance! Dance!"

    Memorial to Marilyn

    The family of Marilyn Myers will hold a brief memorial service at sunrise Friday along the waterfront in Lassing Park, 18th Avenue S and Beach Drive S, St. Petersburg. The public is invited. A reception will follow the ceremony.

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