April 01, 2006

Cemeteries: Stories in the stones

I saw a strange thing on my way home from downtown Boston. I was on one of the old, winding parkways that feed into and out of the city. I came to a red light and found myself idling next to a small headstone shop. (Monument dealer? Memorial store? Grave outlet?) Planted in the dirt around the property were signs announcing, “SALE!” and “SALE TODAY!” Signs you see at discount mattress places and used car lots.

Gray and rose-colored granite stones etched with angels, curlicues and open Bibles rose from a sad, yellow lawn outside the showroom window, and the banners touting get-‘em-while-you-can gravestone bargains fluttered between them. It was disconcerting. Were they offering two-for-ones? Buy one get one for half-price? Discounts on last year’s models? Frequent dier memberships –bury three people with us and the fourth one’s on the house? And was this really a one-day sale? Did the owners think buyers would rush over to stock up on gravestones because they were cheap today or that someone with an old or ill relative would detach himself from his remote and recliner and say to his wife, “Edna, I’ll be back. Dad’s gonna die soon, so I’ll head over to that tombstone sale and pick something out.” Or that people on the parkway – people like me – would see the sign and swerve in to make a monolithic impulse buy?

A crisply dressed young salesman with clipboard and pen came out of the showroom with a potential customer, a fifty-something guy in jeans and a bomber jacket sucking on a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Before the light turned green, I watched them peruse the inventory stuck in the lawn. They pointed, nodded, smiled and joked. There was none of the sadness you see when you drive past a family shopping for a stone and find yourself torn between looking and looking away. Maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe when you don’t need it is the very time to buy a grave.

When I travel, I look for graves. You learn things about a place by visiting the silent yards, fields and confines where people bury their dead.

The body-shaped mound in the Amazon jungle, covered by a reverent roof of thatch, ever-tended, where rests a beloved tribal chief. The Breton cemetery on the Rose Granite Coast where polished graves hold plaques honoring Resistance fighters who quietly worked to take back Nazi-occupied France. The Istanbul tombs marked by green stone turbans announcing that these deceased had made the haj to Mecca. The centuries-old stone in the churchyard at Duloe, England, a Cornish town, which tells the tale, in poem, of a young man’s death at sea: “Unfortunately Drown’ed in The Shallow Pool and was Swallow’ed by The Deep.” Near the lost sailor rest two brothers: Richard Brapp died in 1888 at the age of four years and nine months. In 1891, his brother, William, died – at the age of four years and nine months. Oh, the incredible grief of Mr. and Mrs. Brapp! From more than a hundred years ago, it bolts up out of the ground and stabs you in the heart.

And places like La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the cemetery has assumed urban legend status. Eva Peron lies in La Recoleta (photo above), and I happened to visit on an anniversary of her death. A line of people 20-deep waited to lay blood-red flowers at her crypt.

As I walked through La Recoleta, a city of the dead where massive, ornate mausoleums simultaneously mourn and celebrate our human passing, I noticed the cat lady. She wandered about, looking at the ground, peering around corners and down the eerie alleys that weave through the rows of towering tombs. Spying a cat, she’d retreat to some cool, shadowy space between the tall marble and granite graves, open a plastic sack of food scraps, and wait. A dozen cats would appear from nowhere to eat what the old lady lovingly tossed. They were family, the cemetery lady and her raggedy cats.

In La Recoleta, the tombs are property, and people own their mausoleums. They pay taxes, about $500 per year for a good-sized mausoleum. And they can sell their crypts.

When you buy a used mausoleum, you want your dead’s name on the door, so buyers often erase the name of the previously deceased and sandblast in the name of the newly departed. Some new owners use the tear-down, build-up strategy, demolishing old crypts and erecting new ones in their footprints.

There are tombs that hold 30-foot-deep stacks of coffins, generations of a family’s dead piled atop one another under the earth. You peer down into the crypt chamber through a wrought iron grate and look upon centuries of life and death and inhale the musty odor of bones and wood and worms. On shelves carved into the earthen rock lie coffins, large and small, new and old, intact and broken. Way down there in the dark and the dirt lies a tiny one with a date from the 1700s.

A baby died in the 18th century in Buenos Aires, and you stand now, looking at a dusty, infant-sized box in the ground. And you wonder about that life, and that time.

Where shall we go next?