A Memorial To John Muir

We chose to memorialize John Muir for The Sanctuary project with the recent centennial of his passing in 1914 and for his fame as the founder of the Conservation Movement, the defender of Yosemite National Park, and National Park Service. Through nature, Muir had an experience around death which is unique even for our times. With a near brush with death as a young man and many times later during dangerous mountain adventures, he came to an inner peace with death that is rare today. Every person who shares the earth, regardless of their belief or religion, can understand the wisdom of the cycles of life and death that Muir wrote about.

Muir’s close friends, Charles Keeler and John Burroughs, paying their respects at Muir’s gravesite.
Photo: National Park Service

“On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than death… Let children walk with nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights.: –from A Thousand-Mile Walk To the Gulf

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and island, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” from John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir

Muir spent 5 days “camping out” in the Bonaventure Cemetery on his “thousand-mile walk to the Gulf” and experienced the beauty of nature in the old, naturally “green” graveyard taken over by nature. “The most conspicuous glory of Bonaventure is its noble avenue of live-oaks. They are the most magnificent planted trees I have ever seen, about fifty feet high and perhaps three or four feet in diameter, with broad spreading leafy heads…There are also thousands of smaller trees and clustered bushes, covered almost from sight in the glorious brightness of their own light… Many bald eagles roost among the trees along the side of the marsh…Large flocks of butterflies, all kinds of happy insects, seem to be in a perfect fever of joy and sportive gladness. The whole place seems like a center of life. The dead do not reign there alone.”

“I gazed awe-stricken as one new-arrived from another world. Bonaventure is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the graves are powerless in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flower, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord’s most favored abodes of life and light…”

“Most of the graves of Bonaventure are planted with flowers. There is generally a magnolia at the head, near the strictly erect marble (of the headstones), a rose-bush or two at the foot, and some violets and showy exotics along the sides or one the tops. All is enclosed by a black iron railing, composed of rigid bars that might have been spears or bludgeons from a battlefield in Pandemonium.”

“It is interesting to observe how assiduously Nature seeks to remedy these labored art blunders. She corrodes the iron and marble, and gradually levels the hills which is always heaped up, as if a sufficiently heavy quantity of clods could not be laid on the dead. Arching grasses come one by one; seeds come flying on downy wings, silent as fate, to give life’s dearest beauty for the ashes of art; and strong evergreen arms laden with ferns and tillandsia drapery are spread over all–Life at work everywhere, obliterating all memory of the confusion of man…”

“Though tired, I sauntered a while enchanted, then lay down under one of the great oaks. I found a little mound that served for a pillow, placed my plant press and bag beside me and rested fairly well… When I awoke, the sun was up and all Nature was rejoicing… On rising I found that my head had been resting on a grave, and though my sleep had not been quite so sound as that of the person below, I arose refreshed, and looking about me, the morning sunbeams pouring through the oaks and gardens dripping with dew, the beauty displayed was so glorious and exhilarating that hunger and care seemed only a dream.”

Aside from his own granite headstone and iron fence surrounding his grave, Muir did receive a more “green” burial typical of his times, probably without embalming and certainly without pesticides, herbicides, or a burial vault. In a webpage on Muir’s funeral and burial, Harold Wood wrote, “John Muir’s burial site is in a quiet, tree-shaded spot near the banks of Alhambra Creek, about one mile south of the Muir homestead and the National Historic Site, managed by the U.S. National Park Service…. John Muir, the champion of the wilderness, died on Christmas Eve 1914 in California Hospital, Los Angeles. Challenged by the heart-breaking loss of the Hetch Hetchy battle, and by what he called “the grippe” (influenza)… His body was shipped home to Alhambra Valley, where he was to be buried next to his beloved wife Louie. On December 26, the Sierra Club held a memorial service at Muir Lodge for their beloved leader, and over several days newspapers all around the nation carried his obituary and published tributes to him.”

“The funeral was attended by over 100 members of the Sierra Club…At the Muir House, the simple casket rested in a bay window just below the study where he wrote most of his books. It was covered with a drapery of ferns and violets…Some mourners brought branches of fir or pine to place beside the coffin. Among the floral tributes were a large laurel wreath with purple and gold ribbon, from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a wreath of red roses from the National Institute of Arts and Letters…. Moving to the gravesite a mile away, a brief ceremony was held… As the coffin was lowered into the ground, ‘A member of the Sierra Club placed on the coffin a bough of the Sequoia gigantea which the naturalist had planted with his own hand near what is now his grave.’ The San Francisco Chronicle, in uncharacteristic poetic fashion, reported that ‘As the beloved body was being lowered into the grave, quail on the side hills called out their farewells and overhead, in trees Muir himself planted forty years ago, God’s feathered creatures, that had come to know, and not to fear the man, sang his requiem.”

A modern photo of John Muir’s family cemetery under the trees he planted:.
Photo: Harold Wood

“Earth has no sorrow that earth cannot heal.” –John Muir

Much of the information and photos on this page were provided by webmaster Harold Wood from the John Muir Exhibit at the Sierra Club webpage.

Harold Wood (left) and Lee Stetson, who performs as John Muir every year in Yosemite National Park, make a pilgrimage to John Muir’s gravesite
Photo: Harold Wood