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Feng Shui burial ground sparks uproar

As obsessed as Walt Whitman was with death and nature, one can only imagine what the Good Gray Poet would make of the situation at Harleigh Cemetery. The Camden cemetery, caretaker of Whitman's remains, recently cleared trees and scrub from hundreds of feet of bluff and shoreline along a bend in the Cooper River, leaving it denuded and unsightly.

An environmentalist who cares for the Cooper was concerned about the loss of trees and the prospects of dirt running freely into the river and reported the clearing to the state. The Department of Environmental Protection is investigating whether environmental rules were broken. But, like most things, the situation is much more complex than it appears. Chris Mojica, the cemetery's manager, says the bluff was cleared to create grave sites for a Chinese burial ritual that calls for meticulous placement in harmony with nature.

Making things even murkier, Mojica maintains environmental laws requiring permits to clear vegetation along waterways don't apply because the river below the bluff is not really part of the river, or at least wasn't at one time. He maintains this part of the Cooper was once part of a lake that was on cemetery property, but it flooded and became part of the river when a nearby levee broke in 1971. "It's our land," Mojica said. "We're not trying to do anything wrong here. It's a religious and cultural custom, and we're trying to provide the land."

The cemetery sold the bluff to what Mojica described as a group practicing feng shui burials. The Yin House of feng shui holds that if a person is buried in the correct orientation and at the right time of day, future generations will prosper. If not, the family will suffer. The cemetery was making plans for some 100 graves along the bluff.One can imagine Whitman being torn between leaving the bluff alone and respecting the wishes of those who want to be buried in it.

If nothing else, Whitman praised nature and mankind's role in nature. He also embraced death. Whitman's tomb is embedded within a little knoll not far from the bluff. Tall trees, possibly going back to the time of Whitman's own death in 1892, grow above its ceiling. Next to the crypt he designed, a marker takes lines from his famous Leaves of Grass: "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love. If you want me again look for me under your boot soles." That's something you could literally do, simply by climbing up the knoll.

Yin House is elemental, taking into account relationships of burial sites to mountains and water. South Jersey doesn't have much to offer in the way of even small hills, but the bluff, about 25 feet at its highest point and squarely facing Cooper River Park, seems to fit the criteria, Mojica said. Fred Stine, a Haddon Township resident who works with the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, has a much different take. Stine argues kayakers and canoers are coming back to the Cooper and need a place to commune with wildlife -- osprey, herons, even bald eagles.

"Nature has shown a lot of resilience down there," he said.

It breaks Stine's heart to think that, instead of providing tall trees with perches for eagles -- perhaps even perches from which to launch a dalliance that Whitman would celebrate in verse -- the bluff is barren. "There aren't many wooded areas left in western Camden County," Stine said. "We have to protect every square inch that's left."

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