Paul Greenberg: Angle of repose

BY PAUL GREENBERG Published: January 12, 2013
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It is quiet out here today. It often is at the old graveyard. A soft wind plays over the monuments. Not a cloud in the sky this cold but bright weekday. No one else appears.

Now and then I see others here, the walkers and talkers. Like the man who stood quietly addressing a gravestone, but it wasn't the gravestone he was talking to. Maybe he was sharing the news of his day, or hearing the news of eternity. No one else is here just now, but the place is scarcely empty. It is full of presences. But none disturb. You may listen to them or not.

Why do we whisper in graveyards? Surely not because we're afraid of waking the dead. Or have anything to fear. It's hard to imagine being afraid here. Any more than you would in a cathedral. Or a little church.

Our voices drop in these surroundings out of respect, maybe reverence, or maybe in relief at being among so many friends. But not in fear. We are at home here. And will be.

We stand at peace among the rows and rows of names, all different, but sharing a common bond. They would never think of intruding. Like unseen neighbors who live in different houses along a quiet suburban street “whose rhetoric of shadow and marble/ promises the desirable/ dignity of having died.”

That is Jorge Luis Borges describing La Recoleta, a city of the dead, a metropolis of the dead, in the heart of Buenos Aires. Beyond its ornate gates, tree-lined boulevards dwindle away into side streets, then little lanes. The famous cemetery has both its high-rent neighborhoods and economy class forever awaiting gentrification. What a rich selection of tombs to chose from: art deco, art nouveau, baroque, neo-Gothic ...

Here in Little Rock, Ark., it is only fitting that the quiet cemetery be a parochial capital of the dead rather than some great, sprawling necropolis. Much preferable, I think. Not as showy.

Here the scandal of materiality — birth and death, and all the ills that flesh is heir to — has faded into a rough equality at last. Distinctions once considered important have become immaterial.



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