Recently, Tawwaba Bloch, who helped with the research to find Murshida Rabia Martin, the first American Sufi murida, sent me word that she and two others (Cheraga Saraswati Burke and PamAllah Dussault) followed our directions and made a pilgrimage to the burial site. Together they took flowers from the garden at Khankah SAM in San Francisco to place in the crypt vases and Cheraga Saraswati Burke conducted a ritual of remembrance. Hopefully many more American Sufis will begin to find their way there, just as they have.
Sufis Visiting Graves
With the help of Pir Shabda Kahn and Murshid Wali Ali Meyer of the Sufi Ruhaniat International, as well as the research team (Tawwaba Samia Bloch) working on the biography of Murshid Samuel Lewis, Jennifer Alia Wittman and I were finally able to locate the cemetery where Murshida Rabia Ada Martin (1871-1947), the first American Sufi and murshida, is interred.
Born in San Francisco in 1871 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Ada married David Martin at the age of 19. After a period of struggle, she began to study various religions and esoteric paths. In 1911, she attended a talk by the Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882-1927), then touring the United States for the first time at the Vedanta Society in San Francisco. She knew at once that she had found her path and her teacher. She wrote to him immediately and it was confirmed for him in a vision that she would become his first murid. She then traveled to Seattle where she was initiated and given the name, Rabia. Thereafter, Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan guided her on both the inner and outer planes, and eventually recognized her as the first murshida, ‘guide’ or leader, within the newly formed universalist lineage of Inayati Sufism. She established the first American community of Sufis in the Bay Area, and the first khankah or center in Fairfax, California. Among her murids were Murshid Samuel Lewis (1896-1971) and Murshida Vera Corda (1913-2002). She passed away in San Francisco in 1947.
For various reasons, Murshida Rabia Martin’s place in early American Sufism has been, for many years, overshadowed by the success of later teachers, and her burial place forgotten by most Sufis. However, several years ago, while walking and saying dhikr in a park near my home, I had an experience in which I felt Pir-o-Murshid Inayat Khan was telling me that Murshid Rabia had been too long forgotten, and that it was time to reclaim her for the lineage as a true murshida within it. I felt immediately that I should find her burial place. It was then that I began to look for clues about where she was buried. But, to my surprise, no one seemed to know. All I could find were smallish pieces of biographical information. I was sure, however, that she was somewhere in the Bay Area.
Nevertheless, it was not until this year that I had the opportunity to travel to San Francisco and look for myself. Jennifer Alia Wittman, the Executive Director of the Inayati Order—North America, and I, both wrote to Pir Shabda Kahn and Murshid Wali Ali Meyer, the seniormost disciples of Murshid Samuel Lewis, as the people most likely people to know where she might be buried. Though neither was aware of the location, they soon put the team researching the biography of Murshid Sam on the case, looking for any information available. After several days and many e-mails back and forth, Pir Shadba sent us the text of an obituary the team had unearthed, telling us that Rabia Ada Martin was interred a mausoleum in the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park in Colma, California.
The Hills of Eternity Memorial Park is a beautiful, sprawling Jewish cemetery with an equally beautiful and majestic mausoleum called, Portals of Eternity. Looking up at the great edifice, we quickly realized that we had no idea where to begin looking. After all, there had to be thousands of burial chambers in the mausoleum. So we decided to go into the offices of the cemetery to talk to the director, who tried to help us locate the exact place of her burial chamber. He took out the old books, but found that the entry was somewhat incomplete. “Unfortunately,” he said, “you’re going to have to search the entire mausoleum. All I can tell you is that her chamber will be at about eye level. And don’t forget to search the lower floor if you don’t find her upstairs.”
We then walked over to the Portals of Eternity mausoleum and up to its beautiful green oxidized copper doors. Green doors was clearly a good Sufi sign I thought. Above the doors was written in English, “Portals of Eternity,” and above that in Hebrew characters, Beit Olam, which literally means, ‘Eternal House.’
We pushed open the heavy green doors and kissed the mezuzah, just inside on the right, as we entered the foyer, on the floor of which was a large magen david, of ‘star of David.’ Directly in front of us was a room where memorial services are held, and to the left and right, hallways leading to the burial chambers.
We had no idea where to start, so we decided to be systematic, carefully going down every passageway together, scanning every wall at roughly eye-level, Alia taking the left side of each hall, and me the right. Back and forth, up and down passageways, we searched through the whole maze of the upper floor. After a half-hour of searching, we’d found nothing. A little discouraged, we then remembered the lower floor and made our way downstairs, again searching the passages systematically.
Finally, about five minutes later, I came upon two burial chambers marked, “Etta M. Mehdy” and “Mirza Mehdy,” and remembered that Etta was the daughter of Rabia Martin, and her husband’s name was Mirza!
Then, sure enough, not far away, at eye-level, as the director had said, was a chamber marked, “David Martin, 1867-1943” and “Rabia Ada Martin, 1871-1947.”
It was a great moment, and an honor, thinking that we may have been the first Inayati Sufis to rediscover and visit her burial place in more than half a century.
Noticing that the flower vases on the burial chamber were empty, we immediately regretted not having brought flowers. Momentarily glancing at someone else's flowers, we both exchanged a knowing look and smiled. We decided to go back to the office to see if we could buy flowers instead.
At the office, the director showed us the flowers available and we decided on white carnations. He asked us who it was we had been searching for and why. We told him who Rabia Martin was, explained a little about Sufism, and told him that other Sufis would likely be coming to visit her burial place now that we had found it. It was a Jewish cemetery, but he was very interested and took down her name, saying that he intended to look her up and add her to list of significant burials in the cemetery.
Heading back to the mausoleum, Alia suggested I photograph the way to Murshida Rabia Martin’s burial chamber so we could describe it to others later. We found our way back to the chamber, filled the vases with water in a nearby utility room, and arranged the flowers in them on the chamber. We then recited the “Toward the One” together and said individual prayers there for the peace of her soul, in gratitude for her work and contributions, and for the reestablishment of her name in the silsila or chain of transmission of Inayati Sufis everywhere.
Directions to the Burial Place of Murshida Rabia Martin
The address of the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park is 1299 El Camino Real, Colma, CA 94014-3238.
It’s hours are 8:30AM to 4:00PM, Sunday through Friday. It is a Jewish cemetery and closed on the Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday evening), major Jewish Holy Days, as well as secular holidays. Flowers can be purchased in the office.
The cemetery offices are located right at the entrance, and one may park there to walk to the Portals of Eternity mausoleum, easily visible nearby.
Enter the foyer of the mausoleum.
Turn into the hallway to the right.
Walk down to the end of the hallway.
Turn left and descend the stairs to the lower level.
Turn right at Corridor A.
Walk straight to the end, where you will find the burial chamber of Murshida Rabia Martin.
When leaving the cemetery, there is a place to wash and purify your hands, pouring water over your right hand three times, then over your left three times.
"Love is the key to felicity, nor is there a heaven to any who love not. We enter Paradise through its gates only." — Bronson Alcott
After visiting the grave of transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alia and I made our way over to the graves of Bronson Alcott and his daughter, Louisa May Alcott.
The Alcott family was represented by a more or less uniform row of identical rough and weathered markers with initials on them.
We came to the marker of Louisa May Alcott first, the second daughter of Bronson Alcott and author of Little Women (1868). She actually had two markers—a rough stone marker in front with her initials upon it, and a rectangular marble slab behind it with her name upon it.
The stone marker read “L.M.A. 1832-1888” and had a collection of stones, pine cones, sticks, and a few pennies at its base.
The white marble slab behind it read “Louisa M. Alcott,” and was covered and surrounded by pennies, a few nickels, and stones. The coins were likely to pay the boatman, Kharon, to take her across the River Styx and into the Otherworld (though Kharon’s obol was originally a coin placed in the mouth). In this period, educated Americans were well-versed in Greek mythology and often laid coins upon the eyes of the dead, as was done with Abraham Lincoln. I guessed the custom of leaving coins here was probably following the same reference.
Behind the while marble slab was a small American flag with a star upon it, noting that she was a veteran of the Civil War, serving as a nurse in Washington D.C.
We knelt down to meditate and pray before them, and afterward stood up, taking turns reading various quotes from her:
If I can do no more, let my name stand among those who are willing to bear ridicule and reproach for the truth's sake, and so earn some right to rejoice when the victory is won. — Louisa M. Alcott, Letter to the American Woman Suffrage Association (1885)
Far away in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead. — Louisa M. Alcott, quoted by Elbert Hubbard
Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety. It shows itself in acts rather than in words, and has more influence than homilies or protestations. — Louisa M. Alcott, Little Women (1868)
Love is the only thing that we can carry with us when we go, and it makes the end so easy. — Louisa M. Alcott, Little Women (1868)
Next to Louisa May is her youngest sister, May Alcott (1840-1879), a painter and the model for “Amy March” (Amy being an anagram for May) in Little Women. Next to her is Elizabeth Sewell Alcott (1835-1858), the model for “Beth March” (short for Elizabeth) who died at the age of 22. At the moment of her death, it is said that Louisa and her mother saw a ghostly mist rising from the body. At her funeral, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau served as pallbearers. She is buried next to her mother, Abby May Alcott (1800-1877), the model for “Marmie,” a tireless social activist, being both an active suffragette and abolitionist. Anna Bronson Alcott, the model for “Meg” is also apparently buried nearby, but we did not see her grave.
Finally, we came to the grave maker of transcendentalist, Amos Bronson Alcott, simply “A.B.A. 1799-1888” on his marker. We again knelt and prayed, and read a quote from Alcott:
Love is the key to felicity, nor is there a heaven to any who love not. We enter Paradise through its gates only. — Bronson Alcott, Table Talk (1877)
"Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty." — Ralph Waldo Emerson
On a trip through Massachusetts today, my friend Alia and I stopped off in Concord to visit some of our literary heroes in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery . . . about as perfect a cemetery as I've ever been through. A moss-covered, root-strewn masterpiece.
Parked at the bottom of Author's Ridge, we walked up the hill seeking the graves of the Transcendentalists—Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Ellery Channing. Our plan was to visit the grave of each and then recite aloud from their writings.
The first grave we came to was that of Thoreau, but as there were a few other visitors around, and we wanted some privacy, we decided to come back later. Thoreau deserved better than a hurried visit. He wouldn't have approved. So we headed off to find Emerson first, one of my grandfather's favorite American philosophers.
A little ways around the bend, we came upon the Emerson family graves. Emerson's grave was marked by a huge rose quartz boulder with a green oxidized copper plate on it which read: "Ralph Waldo Emerson. Born in Boston May 25 1803. Died in Concord April 27 1882. The passive master lent his hand to the vast soul that oer him planned."
After looking at the markers for a few minutes, it occurred to us that I should pray for the soul of Emerson, and Alia for his wife, Lidian. We knelt down to meditate and pray . . . which also had the effect of scaring off a few less committed visitors. I smiled and continued to pray.
When we were done, we wanted to leave something at the graves. We hadn't thought to bring anything, so we looked around for something that seemed appropriate. We found a few lovely acorns. Alia deposited her's on top of Lidian's marker. Noticing the pennies people had inserted above the copper plate on Emerson's grave marker, I placed my acorns on the shelf of pennies they had created.
I then read a passage aloud from Emerson's essay, "The Over-Soul" :
[. . .] the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart, of which all sincere conversation is the worship, to which all right action is submission; [. . .] We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul. Only by the vision of that Wisdom can the horoscope of the ages be read, and by falling back on our better thoughts, by yielding to the spirit of prophecy which is innate in every man, we can know what it saith. — Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Over-Soul” (1841)
Even more than Emerson, it was Lidian's grave that made a strong impression on Alia. It was a beautiful marker, with lovely sentiments written on both sides. We guessed by one of her children. On the front is written: "Wife of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Daughter of Charles & Lucy Colton Jacobson. Born September 20th 1802 close by Plymouth Rock, as she loved to remember. Died November 13th 1892 in Concord."
On the back is written: "Lidian Emerson. In her youth an unusual sense of the Divine Presence was granted her and she retained through life the impress of that high Communion. To her children she seemed in her native ascendancy and unquestioning courage a Queen, a Flower in elegance and delicacy. The love and care for her husband, and children was her first earthly interest but with overflowing compassion her heart went out to the slave, the sick and the dumb creation. She remembered them that were in bonds as bound with them."
Today, my last full day at the Abode, my friend, Alia, took me over to The Mount, Edith Wharton’s estate in nearby Lenox, Massachusetts. A fan of her 1920 novel, The Age of Innocence, and knowing a little something about her life, I was eager to see her home.
We explored the house first, and then headed out to the magnificent gardens, trying-out different spots from which to sit and take it all in.
But, according to Alia, the “most sacred place” on the whole estate was the little pet cemetery on the hill, where Edith Wharton’s dogs were buried.
Here, we knelt down and said impromptu prayers for Modele, Miza, Toto, and the others, for all the joy these little companions brought her, and to all of us.