A Moravian Easter
LIANE HANSEN, host:
Every Saturday before Easter, members of the Moravian community of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, gather at an enormous cemetery. It was established before the Revolutionary War in a historic area called Old Salem. Moravian Protestants settled after leaving Germany to practice their religion freely. Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio was with a group of Moravians as they cleaned the graves of their ancestors.
JESSICA JONES: Melissa Price(ph) has spent every Saturday before Easter in this cemetery for as long as she can remember. Yesterday, she poured a bucket of water over the flat, marble headstone of one of her ancestors.
Ms. MELISSA PRICE: You might have to scrub that a little bit. (unintelligible) where it got caked on right there.
JONES: Price and her four children, who range in age from three to 10, crouch over the weathered stone as they scour away a year's worth of grime. Then Price peers through her wire-rimmed glasses to read what it says.
Ms. PRICE: This is Francis Parker Bodenheimer(ph), my great-great grandmother, was the wife of A.H. Bodenheimer(ph). She was born March 23rd, 1870, and she died on December 10th, 1953.
JONES: Price and her children have come with about 20 other family members. Hundreds of other families are here, too, pulling wagons overflowing with daffodils, tulips and camellias to brighten the graves. Moravians have deep Protestant roots in what's now the Czech Republic and Germany.
That's where, in the 1700s, they held their first sunrise Easter services in cemeteries. Price says that history is why it's so important to make sure the graveyard, known as God's Acre, looks beautiful.
Ms. PRICE: This is the church for the day. You know, the cemetery is the sanctuary where we're going to hold the service, and we want to have it nice for that service.
JONES: According to Moravian custom, families are not buried together because up until the 1850s, families didn't sit together in church. Men and women and boys and girls are grouped according to marital status, gender, and age.
As visitors move from section to section, they share stories about their relatives: What they looked like, who they voted for and how they died. Ten-year-old Elizabeth Price says the history is her favorite part.
Ms. ELIZABETH PRICE: It's really nice to know who these people were and know about how they grew up and their story.
(Soundbite of music)
JONES: At the other end of the graveyard, a traditional Moravian quartet is playing to entertain people as they work. This tune is from 18th-century Germany. It has been performed by generations. Nola Reed Knouse heads the Moravian Music Foundation, an organization that works to preserve the group's vocal and instrumental traditions.
Ms. NOLA REED KNOUSE (Director, Moravian Music Foundation): We as Moravians sing what we believe, and we sometimes say if we don't sing it, we don't believe it. So that as we are hearing one of our particular tunes, most of us are singing those words in our heads, in our memories. So it's a way of worship for us.
JONES: Knouse, who directors quartets and these musicians, stay up all night before Easter, performing their music from one neighborhood to the next. Many of them have been playing since they were kids. They gather in the graveyard again around 4 a.m. on Easter morning, playing as the sun comes up. Peter Brown(ph) plays the alto saxophone, and Paul Horner(ph) plays the tuba.
Unidentified Man #1: We're probably going to have close to 350, 400 players right here in the graveyard and maybe 5,000, 6,000 attendees. So this is a big service.
Unidentified Man #2: A lot of us started playing in grade school, and we'll play until our last day, probably.
JONES: As they perform on Easter Sunday, Brown and Horner say it's an emotional experience to be surrounded by the graves of their ancestors. Brown says he likes to think his grandparents and their grandparents before them are listening. So he does his best to get the music right. For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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