Swans Commentary » swans.com November 18, 2013  



Whistling In The Graveyard


by Peter Byrne





Life's little stage is a small eminence,
Inch-high the grave above; that home of man,
Where dwells the multitude: we gaze around;
We read their monuments; we sigh; and while
We sigh, we sink; and are what we deplored;
Lamenting, or lamented, all our lot!

—Edward Young, Night Thoughts, 1853


(Swans - November 18, 2013)   I confess to any number of morbidities, but refuse absolutely to consider my attachment to cemeteries in the least degree sick. When my love affair began I didn't even know what fetish meant. I was sixteen and went to work pushing a lawn mower in Chicago's sunny Mount Olive Cemetery. O happy day in the morning! I'd grab breakfast and the day-before's Sun-Times and run for the Irving Park Road streetcar. Had my letter-to-the-editor with the quote from Mr. Dooley been printed? No. The hell with them. I read Herb Graffis's column and checked the baseball stats until the end of the line.

The city limits were fun. The grounds of the Cook County Insane Asylum stretched right up to the main road. A few early rising inmates would be out watching sane life with disapproval through the iron spokes of the fence. One of them might go ape in his movements or launch into oratory. Something might be stirring at the picnic grounds across the road. In passing I'd peek through a crack in the ramshackle board fence of Kolze's Electric Grove. The view never lived up to the place's louche reputation. The staff entry of Mount Olive passed through an overgrown lane that could have been out in the forest preserves.

We gathered in a damp dark hut smothered in foliage. Gus the boss announced the day's arrivals and assigned the work areas for the day. He'd been transplanted directly from a farm in Lithuania and had never got used to the Chicago suit and tie that Mount Olive decorum made necessary. Off we went to our plots to plow. The veterans, a motley lot of misfits, had power mowers. Teenagers were exploited for their coltish muscle.

There was nothing dead about the place but the putrid water in vases left from Decoration Day aka Memorial Day. That was the peak of our season when the grounds had to be in tiptop shape to convince the rush of visitors that their beloved were being looked after and remind them to send their yearly check. We had to cough up too as we were unionized. Our advantages were not as apparent as our obligations. When the union man, a James Gandolfini look-alike, came down the lane in his Cadillac once a month it was like a visit from royalty. We put our sandwiches aside and got out our wallets. One German immigrant, an accountant in his pre-mower life, used to gripe once the Cadillac had pulled away. Gus would shut him up with a glum Lutheran look that said that's the way things were.

But our crew was generally a merry one. Mount Olive was an oasis in the city. The birds sang, the hornets stung. The dead never entered my thoughts. When occasionally the turf would yield under my young feet it was good for a laugh. I didn't think about whoever was in the crumbled coffin in the grassed-over forgotten grave.

Of course we were taught a solemn routine. When heavenly music flowed from the speakers in the tall elm trees we put on our official countenance. Mowers were dropped and we stood absolutely still facing the winding internal road. There was a problem about what to do with our hands. Joining them in prayer would have been too much. Dropping them folded over our fly could be equivocal. In our lackadaisical way we were feeling the contradiction in humanity's foremost hypocrisy, the pretense that the death of other people mattered.

The Olive chief executive's limousine would lead the hearse in the slow automotive parade. Not only important but hugely fat, he had trouble getting in and out of his black beauty of a car. But did the concert master directing Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem have to be skinny? Our man was a life force and marked the sharp contrast between the quick and the dead. Some people died and others had not. They had to eat big to survive and make their payments.

In Europe I was initially put off by the ancient tombs in churches. Nature was nowhere and you ran the risk of being nailed by a sermon. But London's Highgate Cemetery was a revelation. I would go straight to the huge boulder head of Karl Marx's monument. The politics of the century unfolded around it in charade. The Maoists from China kept to a tight group uneasy about their European brothers in belief who looked like nerds masquerading as rioters. The Russians always stood straight and smiled measuredly under their umbrellas. Miners up from Wales, full of beer, wanted to sing. As the century's creative destruction continued, dissidents who came to scoff still seemed intimidated by the great boulder. After 1989 hucksters turned up who offered to sell me a chip off it.

At Cimetière du Père Lachaise in Paris I walked through Montmartre into a livelier history. The fusillade of 1871 still echoed. The military fought all night among the tombs to crush the survivors of the Commune. They shot the one hundred and forty-seven who made it to first light and shoveled them into a mass grave. The arts were everywhere now, tucked into the greenery. Enough authors to tire your eyes: Molière, Apollinaire, Balzac, Proust; musicians from Chopin to Jim Morrison; painters Delacroix and Modigliani; and one-off marvels like Oscar Wilde and Édith Piaf.

A métro ride took me to the Cimetière du Sud in Montparnasse, a cozier and less grandiose stopping place. Handy to the Left Bank publishing houses, it specialized in writers and those who live off them. Baudelaire lies there. The vitality of Parisian funereal life came home to me in 1980 when thirty-thousand admirers, mainly young, gathered spontaneously for the internment of Jean-Paul Sartre. The event discountenanced the French establishment that had been insisting ad nauseam Sartre no longer mattered.

Italy was something else. Genoa's Cimitero monumentale di Staglieno is the opera house prima donna of burial grounds. Its square kilometer of sculpture shames most art galleries. There's a grand staircase and a domed Pantheon as in Rome. Sentiment runs over and when I hinted to a Genoan friend that the place might be a shade kitschy he roared no, it's kitschissimo! Venice's island cemetery of San Michele was on the contrary all class and style. Celebrated aesthetes have rushed to Venice on their last legs not to miss being slotted in after a last glorious trip across the lagoon. As sleazy tourism has slurped up Venice, San Michele's dignity suggests what used to be.

In such exalted settings it's all too easy to forget about the cemetery business at ground level, as it were. I keep my perceptions fresh by walking through my own Italian town's cemetery. It has its charm, including a majestic nineteenth century arch in the classic mode and an exquisite twelfth century Romanesque church and cloister. There are also more verdant walks than in the town's masonry-encumbered so-called park. There are low rent districts and good suburbs. Everywhere there are middlemen. At the gate they might be parking cars for a consideration or controlling the flower sellers. Inside, looking surly, they sit smoking in front of the communal mausoleums as if they own them. Sunburnt and oily, their boredom says that death is a very material thing, to be paid for. Favors are available at a price from these pimps between this and the nether world.

The temper in what's become my hometown cemetery is competitive and less amiable than in the town proper. The dead seem to encourage bad manners. There's petty crime. The bereaved steal each other's artificial flowers and mess up their neighbors' decorative do-dads. The other day I saw a handwritten notice: Ladri e profanatori di tombe, Dio vi vede e vi fara marcire le mani. This is strong stuff: "Thieves and tomb violators, God has his eye on you and will rot off your hands."

There are cemeteries that have been raised to sacred status. This buries them under history, so to speak, leaving the fun six-feet under. It also makes them tourist destinations and can mean an expensive entry ticket. Such is the case of the Old Jewish Cemetery of Prague where after paying to get in I found myself in a hurried one-way walkthrough. It was claustrophobic and short on chlorophyll. The piled-on tombstones were impressive. But to take them in properly I'd have done better to stay home and brought them up on my screen.

The Alter Jüdischer Friedhof in Berlin is a very different story. It's a quiet, park-like enclave where another Thomas Gray could compose a sequel to "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." The first burial ground for Jews in the city, it was plowed over by the Nazis in 1943 and used as a way station to the concentration camps. You have to look for the remaining tombstones among the greenery. That of the great Berliner, Moses Mendelssohn, "the German Plato," is singled out to stand for the twelve thousand below who are at one with the tragic soil of the city.

In cemeteries, as elsewhere, it takes all kinds; variety is the spice of death. The best way into Bulgarian history is the Number 79 bus that will take you to the gate of Sofia's Central Cemetery. There the Balkan nightmare can be relived in the afternoon sunlight. The soldiers of half a dozen countries came to stay here. Military history culminates at the grave of the young pilot who in 1943 did Bulgarian hara-kiri into a B-24 that wanted to destroy his city. Catholic monuments are ornate while the Orthodox are much simpler. Jewish graves are neglected because the community, having survived WWII, took off en masse for Israel. In plot 10 the Bulgarian Politburo is still in conclave.

There are humble Muslim graves of the Bulgarian Turks. However, it is the amazing Roma monuments that bring joie de vivre to the place. The deceased are portrayed at table having a smoke with a drink at hand, or else posed beside the expensive automobile they couldn't afford. There's more joy on offer if you come upon a party of Orthodox Christians visiting their family grave site. Their custom beats an Irish wake with its smoky interiors and staggering tenors. They share a picnic with the departed. With any luck you will be offered a banitsa cheese pastry.

Nothing is falser than the old saw that prince and pauper are equal in death. Our American and European burial grounds are unblushingly class-stratified. The business becomes more subtle in Asia. If you hop a ferry at Istanbul's European limit and cross to the Asian suburb of Üsküdar you will find Karaca Ahmet, the grandfather of all cemeteries. They say a million have been buried there since 1338 though this is not a place where numbers matter. How many fish are there in the sea? The essence of the Karaca Ahmet is that of a pleasure ground, and the essence of pleasure is free movement. Turks are a particularly unfenced people who once rode in from the East on horseback. Their institutions remain open and spacious. Charging admission to Karaca Ahmet would scandalize the most money-grubbing of Istanbulites.

The incomparable cypress trees of Karaca Ahmet are its most innocent symbol. In Ottoman times the class indicators of the dead were as trenchant as those seen on the streets of the city. The symbolism of tombstones was precise and complex. The division of the sexes came first. A woman's stone bore carved flowers, hats, and shawls. There was one flower for each of her children. A man's tomb was topped with a turban or, after 1828, by a fez. The size and the style of the headgear depended on the importance of the deceased in the social and political hierarchy. A member of the Sufi religious order merited a tall hat.

The spirit of Karaca Ahmet remains decidedly Ottoman. It's a garden where the dead are honored but leave plenty of room for the living. Some happily stroll while others lie below in a peace that's thought of as happy too. Morbidity is as far away as it was for me pushing a lawnmower in Chicago.

Will crematoria or technology finally put an end to humanity's cemetery era? Could be. Or maybe the minimalist school of art will bleed it of its magniloquence. The British artist Patrick Caulfield who died in 2005 designed his own tombstone. It's simply marked "Dead."


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published November 18, 2013