The Green-Wood cemetery is working and alive in the still way all cemeteries are, the bustle cordoned off at each side by a stern black fence. A national landmark, signs instruct visitors that jogging, exercise and pets are forbidden. This is a working cemetery. Please be respectful, though the please is issued as the mean teacher’s non-optional command.
While the place can be busy–with internments and historic tours–today is no such day. A few women drive by in large SUV’s, peering indifferently out at me from behind their bug-lensed sunglasses. Someone has set a hose more leaks than hose to watering, bright streams watering the grass and headstones before dribbling down a drain. In the little space of mist and sun through the leaves time bends forward a little. The street, a little greyer, predicts the muddy light to accompany the coming rain. The hose will be gone and the sky will water everything while everyone is at school.
As a kid I didn’t really get what cemeteries were about. My mother’s parents house backed up to a small cemetery and my biggest frustration with it was having to walk the long way around to get to it, a straight path blocked by dense bramble and a fence. A few stones had the family name and my grandmother would always point these out: a giant pink granite stone with the letters PANOVEC bigger than my hand. I think she once said that’s where I’m going, but I don’t remember. The headstones were more fun as obstacles to slalom, and the big black granite obelisks hulking off the narrow driveways were dropped by inscrutable aliens.
Unkempt cemeteries seem forlorn and abandoned, but manicured and tended ones seem plastic and fake, or ghoulish. I’ve always thought Egyptians would make good cemetery tenders, or other lost mystics. Anyone whose time living is more focused on death’s endless expanse will do, I suppose.
Previous ages were closer to death. Only in the last century, and only in the richer world, has it become commonplace for all children to reach adulthood. Colds and fevers are reduced to inconveniences from pills whose miracle powers and newness we forget. I don’t know this world, where everything was death. No wonder they were in church all the damn time. It didn’t work, but it was all they had.
Why a door? As metaphor, for the living to be reminded they must all walk through? For ease of use in rapture? General morbid creepiness?
The lock has a keyhole of untarnished brass. I wonder who has the key.
Locusts buzz in the afternoon, the heat back for this last day. Leaves on the big sycamores are turning already but the grass is green and sharing space with miner’s lettuce. Black signs of lacy metalwork point out Cowslip Lane and Chrysanthemum Way, and the paths are lumpy but the pavers still cohere. Birds call. Traffic can’t be heard.
There’s nothing morbid here for me. I didn’t come here to creep myself out and have succeeded. I remember talks back in college about what societies value and what memorials mean. I haven’t progressed much from running down the rows with my grandmother over thirty years ago. All these stones mark somebody who can’t appreciate the memorial, and those who do will eventually be under one too. (It’s a safe assumption: if you shell out for a piece of marble with someone’s name on it, you’ll shell out for your own.) But the first deceased’s memory fades and in short order a large plot of prime real estate is fill of stone markers of importance to no one. Like diamonds, it’s another Ponzi scheme most of us buy into.
How much more fun to memorialize yourself while you’re still alive, and in another living thing? HRT wanted you to know he or she was here back in 1967 and the tree has obliged. The work to carve out three-dimensional letters only increases with time, the year spreading as it does in memory, becoming larger and softer. Perhaps bugs will eat it away, or the tree will grow such that the characters deform into blobs.
Markers span time from colonial times to the present. A headstone for a Latino kid a little younger than me has carved roses and a small portrait covered by a brass lid. One disaster killed more and was the largest air disaster of its time, but is farther back in time. The Latino kid died a few years ago. Which is bigger? Does it matter?
It’s nice here. I sit on some steps, out of the way of the occasional SUV-driving woman. The month is nearly over, the big city roaring out there somewhere, my own home reality too, but not here, not at the moment. I remember the last week in August before school started, everyone quiet, the light strangely long even as we determined to play even as we knew summer was wrapping up to go home. It feels a little like that but with no dread or sense of loss. I realize I like where I am in time and space. I have nothing to feel ashamed of. I’m feeling better physically. I can do the things I need to do, whatever they are.
I take out my phone and open the calculator, put in my last hourly rate and what the number is for a three-month job, then six months. A job would stomp the money worries and require discipline in writing. Pay yourself first, a friend says. Sitting here in the quiet moment is its own payment.