BALTIMORE COUNTY, Md. (RNS) — Just before he started practicing his exit from a replica of Jesus’ tomb, Andre Roberson admitted that, at first, playing the key role in a cemetery’s dramatization of the resurrection was just “something to do.”
Now, as he prepared to don an Afro wig and play Jesus for the fourth time at King Memorial Park’s Easter Sunday Sunrise Service, the annual observance has taken on more meaning.
“Once you do it and you actually start to see the expression on people’s faces, see how they really get into it, it brings delight to it,” said the grave digger at the African-American-owned cemetery northeast of Baltimore.
For the fifth year, a crowd of hundreds is expected to wind through the hairpin-turn country road leading to the cemetery named for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Each year a different predominantly black Baltimore church is invited to host the service, said Erich March, president of the cemetery that was founded in 1973. Once they arrive before dawn, worshippers are seated in folding chairs in view of the replica of Jesus’ tomb that March constructed with grave diggers on his staff in 2012.
March said that the service and the replica of Jesus' tomb fit the needs of his cemetery's customers.
“We cater to Christians predominantly,” said March of the cemetery that primarily serves Baltimore’s African-American community. “It’s just appropriate to have icons or features within a cemetery that represent the faith of those that are interred there.”
The cemetery also serves the local Muslim community and has a staff from diverse backgrounds.
March, a Catholic, said he researched what an ancient tomb looked like in Jesus’ day. Then he called on some of the same people who helped him create the replica — a polyurethane structure covered in concrete — to find their inner thespians once a year.
On Wednesday (April 17), the groundskeepers took their places for a rehearsal. They had rolled the stone to close the tomb containing Roberson so they could roll it away before he practiced his exit.
March, dressed in jeans and a blue outdoor puffy vest, took on the role of director, a can of orange spray paint in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other. He used the paint to mark the spots where the two members of his crew posing as centurions guarding the tomb were to stand holding shields and spears. He warned them that they’d be standing for quite a while as the crowd gathers before the big moment.
March called out orders to the cast in their brown work uniforms about slowing their steps to extend the dramatic atmosphere.
“Everything half time,” he said as they prepared for yet another run-through. “Jesus, you too. The more suspense the better.”
The two angels, the two guards and Jesus have no speaking parts. The only sounds are produced by a hired engineer who plays recorded music evoking thunder and lightning as Jesus appears after the angels roll the stone away. A smoke machine pumps out white smoke from the tomb, and special lights flash behind him as he emerges.
Before Roberson got his turn to practice, March reviewed how the two cast members playing guards for the first time are supposed to drop to one knee as the staffers portraying angels touch them on their shoulders. The four had to coordinate their movements before the angels shifted to their task of opening the tomb, gently stepping over blooming daffodils to reach the large round stone.
One segment of the drama that wasn’t rehearsed was the release of some 20 doves after the character playing Jesus steps out and raises his arms. Also not seen in the broad daylight: little LED lights traditionally strapped to the palms of that actor to illustrate spots where nails had pierced Jesus' hands.
Unlike the cast of cemetery workers, the crowd has no instructions to remain silent as Jesus appears in the dawn’s first light.
“I hear people praising,” said Roberson. “I’ve heard people shouting the name of Jesus.”
In real life, the groundskeepers at the 155-acre cemetery come from different faith perspectives, including Christian, Hebrew and Muslim.
Lou “Lufty” Mandhiry, a Muslim, said he doesn’t think the dramatization conflicts with his faith. He instead considers being an angel for a day “something nice to do.”
Leon Johnson, a Christian, said his first-time role as a centurion — dubbed a “rookie Roman” by a more experienced cast member — gives him a small chance to live out his faith.
“It’s rewarding,” said Johnson, who has dabbled in the past in plays and puppet shows. “It gives you insight of what your spirituality is about.”
Each year, March tries to add a new twist to the plot of the short performance. A few years ago, he added the centurions. This year, he directed Jesus to come and tap the shoulders of the supposedly dazed centurions to wake them up so they could follow him.
At the end, Jesus leads the angels and soldiers up a hill and lifts his left arm one more time before disappearing out of sight. Then, the pastor of the host church is scheduled to preach an Easter sermon as daylight arrives.
Robert Fells, general counsel of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, said Easter sunrise services at cemeteries “are not uncommon but are typically found at religious cemeteries rather than non-sectarian ones.”
He said he thinks the King Memorial Park’s display of a replica of Jesus’ tomb is unique.
March said he just attended the association’s annual convention in Charlotte, N.C., and opted not to share his cemetery’s unusual aspects with his competitors.
But he said he anticipates that the tomb replica, whose stone usually remains in a rolled-away position throughout the year, can be a source of inspiration not only on Easter but year-round.
“People come to the cemetery with some hope that this isn’t the end of it,” he said. “So what better reminder than the open tomb?”