On Cemeteries and their Inhabitants

by Katherine Fraser

Graveyards are alluring. Their spookiness and strangeness is always interesting; despite their stillness, graveyards are never dull. How can a place be boring when it is filled with such a variety of history and identity? Even the beginning of their existence is fascinating. What made some early human decide to dig a hole in the ground, place a corpse inside, and cover said corpse with dirt? Now that’s an interesting question. After reading Dorothy Allison’s “Place,” I considered graveyards with respect to Allison’s idea that “place is people” (Allison 4). Like Allison, I believe that without occupants, a place is an empty shell that lacks sentiment and personality; it is the everyday lives of those inhabiting a place that give the place substance. If this idea is true and a “place is people,” what does this mean for a place where all the people are dead?

A cemetery itself is a literal juxtaposition of the modern world and history; it is a unique meshing of past and present all in one place. In his essay “Hard Life Among the Dead in the Philippines,” Adam Dean profiles a community of Filipino people who, as permanent residents in the Manila North Cemetery, spend their lives straddling the world of the living and the world of the dead. Many of the impoverished families inhabit large, elaborate mausoleums and crypts that belong to wealthier families. In effect, the poor act as watchdogs for the bodies of the upper class dead, for their presence prevents tomb robberies and vandalism throughout the cemetery. These people literally sleep on top of, next to, and sometimes even beneath the bones of the dead. (They only sleep beneath the dead in the case of elevated crypts or apartment-building-like civilian graves). This idea of living in a cemetery, much less sleeping in a crypt, disturbs me. I cannot fathom coexisting with death for such extended periods of time; however, to the Filipinos, this lifestyle is normal. Dean comments, “many in this devoutly religious country see the boundary between the living and the dead as porous” (Dean 1). Unlike in American culture, there is no taboo surrounding death in Filipino culture. Rather than tiptoe around the subject and whisper hushed conversations about the deceased, the Filipino people embrace death. Simply, they believe that death happens and life moves on around it, and the strange cemetery community is a perfect example of this. According to Dean, makeshift stalls selling snacks and necessities line the tombs, and some booths even have karaoke machines. Children “play happily among the tombs, unconcerned about ghosts” and the community itself is fairly safe (Dean 2). Ironically, death is a means of life for the people of the Manila North Cemetery. They receive income for protecting the crypts and vending refreshments to visiting mourners, and this income allows the residents to raise families. Without death, this community could not survive.

Like the people of the Manila North Cemetery, Barney Gonzalez also depends on death for his own economic livelihood. As a groundskeeper for Evergreen Cemetery on Commonwealth Avenue, just past the edges of Boston College’s Corcoran Commons, Gonzalez spends his days maintaining the order of the cemetery. “At first, I just kinda mowed the grass and tried to get people to curb their dogs,” Gonzalez sighed, absentmindedly picking the cuticle on his left thumb, “I didn’t really consider what’s below the ground.” This has since changed. While Gonzalez initially viewed his position as a means of income and nothing more, he now is more engaged with his surroundings and firmly believes in the presence of “something after death,” although he’s not sure what this “something” is. When I asked Gonzalez if he was referring to the idea of an afterlife, he halfway shrugged and repeated the phrase “just something.” Although ambivalent about his belief in life after death, Gonzalez is more certain about the greater purpose of his duties, remarking that he “take[s] pride in caring for people’s final home.” Menial actions such as trimming the grass to a uniform length, clearing unsightly rocks, and removing litter valorize Gonzalez’s work as groundskeeper and guardian of Evergreen Cemetery. In a way, I think the cemetery and Gonzalez protect each other; the cemetery gives Gonzalez economic stability and Gonzalez enables the cemetery to function.

Although Barney Gonzalez is quite at home in cemeteries, many people are disturbed by the overwhelming amount of death inherent to graveyards. Not Allan Gurganus, though. Similar to Gonzalez, Gurganus is comforted by the “sweet calm” of cemeteries (Gurganus 1). In his essay titled “The Man Who Loved Cemeteries,” Gurganus reflects on his boyhood spent overlooking and playing in a cemetery across the road from his North Carolina home. A self-proclaimed taphophile, Gurganus credits his career as a writer to his “love of boneyards” and his childhood “daily dose of tombstones” (Gurganus 3). Furthermore, he notes that “[the cemetery] melted a child’s sense of boundaries between rock-salt death and life’s brief greedy sugar high,” inspiring curiosity and effectively blurring the boundaries between the living and dead worlds (Gurganus 2).

Considering Gurganus’s idea of the thin boundary between life and death in cemeteries, I explored to Spanish poet Luis Cernuda’s collection of Cemetery Poems. In a poem entitled “La realidad y el deseo, Cernuda declares “para el poeta, la muerte es la victoria” (Bruton 191). With this statement, Cernuda demonstrates his belief that absolute fulfillment of life can only be found in death. If life is a quest for victory and prosperity, does this mean life is a quest for death? I am unsure; however, I do not believe Cernuda was advocating for a life dedicated to achieving death as quickly as possible. In his poem “Lázaro,” Cernuda again stresses the idea that “el error de vida es estar vivo” yet he also discusses “la pereza de la muerte,” thus introducing a contradiction (Bruton 195). If death is lazy and provides a quick escape from the harsh realities of life, is death still victorious? Is it honorable to take the easy way out? Despite the paradoxical nature of many of his poems, Cernuda ultimately views death as a form of life and repeatedly highlights the value of death, especially with regard to literary and artistic analysis.

Although Barney Gonzalez is not an acclaimed Spanish poet like Cernuda, he too sees life in death through his everyday tasks and describes Evergreen Cemetery as an “arena” characterized by the constant “interplay [of life and death].” Gonzalez’s word choice interests me because words like “arena” and “interplay” connote an exchange, whether it is an exchange of physical blows between fighters in an arena or a simple exchange of cause and effect. Regardless, cemeteries are not typically considered locations of give-and-take; however, Gonzalez’s thoughts on the cyclical nature of life changed my perception of this idea. How can a place characterized by the presence of corpses be considering dynamic? Nothing is physically changing. I suppose the emotional interplay between cemetery visitors and the cemetery itself provides this dynamicism. When I asked Gonzalez about the emotional impacts of his position as cemetery groundskeeper, he shrugged yet again, seemingly unbothered by the unfaltering wave of my questions. “Life is meant to come with highs and lows,” he said, still picking the same cuticle on his left thumb, “everything and everybody have a little bit of good and bad.” Gonzalez’s wisdom inspired me to consider the duality of living and thus the duality of cemeteries: How can a place be so full of life when all its inhabitants are dead?

Similar to Cernuda and Gonzalez’s beliefs that there is life in death, the protagonist of William Gilson’s short story “Maintenance” also believes that cemeteries are bursting with a surprising amount of life. Gilson’s work tells the story of a cemetery manager named Tim who struggles to find happiness and purpose after the sudden death of his wife and daughter. Although he is surrounded by death at both his home and place of work, Tim still believes in the vivacity of cemeteries, commenting that “the world is full of stiffs. And most of the world is not half as lively as Riverside” (Gilson 4). When used as an informal noun, the term “stiff” refers to dead bodies, and Gilson introduces irony by describing the living population as “stiffs” and the deceased population as “lively” (Gilson 4). This wordplay is certainly comedic, yet it also promotes the idea of overlap between life and death. Moreover, Tim orders his assistant groundskeepers to “have respect for the living and the dead,” and Gilson’s choice to incorporate both the living and dead in his command further highlights the duality of life (Gilson 5). Simply, Gilson places the living and dead on an equal playing field, minimizing the discrepancies between the two states of being. Later on in the story, Tim declares that the deceased, not the living, maintain “ownership” of the cemetery, again imposing qualities of life upon the dead (Gilson 11). Personally, I believe Gilson’s repeated choice to blur the lines between life and death suggests that being dead is simply the final stage of being alive, thus connecting with Cernuda’s concept of “victory in death” (Bruton 191).

This idea of death as the final stage of life is puzzling and deeply confuses me. How can there be elements of life in death? Does an afterlife exist through heaven and hell? Or, like William Gilson states in his essay, is there “an absence [of heaven and hell]” yet the presence of “a good maintenance program” for the spirits of the dead (Gilson 3, 4)? Frankly, I’m not sure what I believe. However, I have determined that it is not the physical bodies that define the idea of place in areas where all the people are dead. Rather, place is defined by the memories and histories associated with the corpses. Unlike human beings, history never dies and thus I believe it is the culmination of the rich histories of the dead that define the sentiment(s) of place in cemeteries. Am I correct? Who knows. Are there perfectly valid alternate explanations? Certainly. Take Barney Gonzalez, for example. But I am content with my reasoning, however incomplete it may be. I have sifted and sorted through short stories, Spanish poetry, and self-reflective essays, and these are the conclusions I have drawn. Death is scary, comforting, ironic, loud, quiet, sad, happy, freeing, and confining all at once, and this multifaceted nature of death is what makes cemeteries such unique locations. Not only are cemeteries overwhelmed by the complex entity of death, but they also precariously balance on the fine line between living and dying. What does it mean to be alive? Maybe that’s the question I’ll address in my next essay.

Works Cited

Allison, Dorothy. “Place.” Tinhouse.com, July 15, 2014.

Bruton, Kevin J. “The Cemetery Poems of Luis Cernuda.” Anales De La Literatura Española Contemporánea, vol. 13, no. 3, 1988, pp. 189–208. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27741850. Accessed 13 Nov. 2017.

Dean, Adam. “Hard Life Among the Dead in the Philippines.” The New York Times, 25 June 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/25/world/asia/manila-north-cemetery-philippines.html. Accessed 10 Nov. 2017.

Gilson, William. “Maintenance.” New England Review, vol. 35, no. 4, 2015, p. 11+. Academic OneFile, proxy.bc.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com.proxy.bc.edu/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=mlin_m_bostcoll&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA396608574&asid=782a43cbcd4cbf9e7d16cff1f0da237b. Accessed 12 Nov. 2017.

Gonzalez, Barney. Personal interview. 1 December 2017.

Gurganus, Allan. “The Man Who Loved Cemeteries.” The New York Times, 30 Oct. 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/31/opinion/the-man-who-loved-cemeteries.html. Accessed 10 Nov. 2017.

“Taphophile.” The Free Dictionary, 2008, www.thefreedictionary.com/Taphophile.