Sunday, July 19, 2009

Walking With the Dead


When I was young, someone told me of a superstition: as when going through tunnels, if you pass a cemetery, you are supposed to hold your breath. I don't remember who told this to me, but I know we were in a car. It made some sense to me at the time. People are (perhaps rightly) a bit squeamish about cemeteries. But—at least while living—I actually enjoy them. Which is not to say that I seek them out in some morbid thrill; I am not in any way obsessed with them. But if I am passing by, especially in a foreign country, I will almost always wander in. And there are some that really do merit a visit for their landscaping and the ornate sculptures of tombstones and mausoleums. The marble cutting is often exquisite. I have never visited The Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, nor have I been to Woodlawn, which is in the Bronx, although I have driven past them countless times. I do, however, remember two cemeteries that made impressions upon me: one is famous, and people do make pilgrimages there; the other is humble and not on any map so to speak. The first is Père Lachaise in Paris, and the second is adjacent to a church in Donegal, Ireland. I remember being two times in Père Lachaise, once with a good friend from high school. She and I were photographers then, and we wandered around the grounds on a cold January that conspired to give us a spectral fog we did our best to capture on film. The mysterious vapor drifted through the plots and gave its airy, ethereal embrace to the sculpted figures that lined the cobblestone paths. We saw the final resting places of Jim Morrison (where votives and other trinkets were left) and of Edith Piaf (buried under mounds of bright bouquets and floral wreaths). The other time was with my father. That was also January, I believe, a year later. But the weather was clear and bright that day. He and I paid tribute to Molière and Oscar Wilde. Going to the website linked above, you can take a virtual tour, such is the beauty and curiosity of the place. In Donegal, I remember Celtic crosses at the tip of the yard, looking out across the bay. I remember sunshine then, too, but also a hailstorm that passed as quickly as it arrived, which is the way of the weather there. I remember the graves of two sisters, Isabella and Mary Virtue. Yes, Virtue. I thought that name intriguing: were they virtuous ladies? Spinster sisters (there was nothing to suggest they were the beloveds of anyone but each other). The sisters died a little more than one year apart, at the end of the nineteenth century. Did I imagine in the breeze coming off the bay, a whispering woman's voice? I thought I heard it distinctly, but I was quite alone. I remember wondering, in case the spinster-sister theory was true, about women's bodies laid to rest, having never known a lover's touch; never having experienced the swelling of life played out daily around them, mirrored in the rising tides. So many stories in the stones, all over the world. Some true celebrations, others tragic tales, but all beautiful. I enjoy the contemplation, the reminder that descends upon me in these places, of my own mortality and of the blessing of life while I have it to live. Yes, I think the poet Michael Coady was right when he suggested that graveyards are not morbid; rather, they are celebrations of life for the living. Giant monuments to Carpe Diem.

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