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Baltimore cemetery offers Easter sunrise dramatization of the resurrection

Adelle M. Banks/Religion News Service | 4/26/2019, 6 a.m.
Just before he started practicing his exit from a replica of Jesus’ tomb, Andre Roberson admitted that, at first, playing ...
King Memorial Park

BALTIMORE COUNTY, Md.

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 was 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 Mr. March constructed with grave diggers on his staff in 2012.

Mr. March said that the service and the replica of Jesus’ tomb fit the needs of his cemetery’s customers.

“We cater to Christians predominantly,” Mr. March said 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Roberson so they could roll it away before he practiced his exit.

Mr. March, dressed in jeans and a blue outdoor 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 gathered before the big moment.

Mr. March called out orders to the cast dressed 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.