Monday, September 21, 2009

The Safest Place

You've heard the old saw: there is no place safer than a cemetery because everyone there is already dead. Excepting Thriller, Night of the Living Dead and the recent glut of zombie literature, this pretty much holds up.

I grew up four blocks from a cemetery, Roseland Park. I didn’t find this to be at all creepy, or even usual. Living near a cemetery had become normative, my everyday. My dad taught my sister to drive on the twisting, all right-away roads; I threw stale bits of bread to Canadian geese near a shallow pond. It's always a curious process of being blindsided when places become our homes, or get in our blood -- no more or less so when those places are dangerous or unbecoming or extravagant. The sooner these unconventional places show up in our lives, the less likely we are to question them, to get spooked.

Because of the early initiation, I’ve always felt comfortable crossing the iron bars of a cemetery’s gates. More than comfortable: I’ve often sought out cemeteries as zones of solace, cut-outs for quiet reflection and clean air.

When I spent a few hours alone at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, recently, something shifted. Not that the grounds, headstones, and masoleums aren't beautiful, wonders of stone and landscape architecture (they are); not that I felt overwhelmed by the scores of anonymous dead (Boss Tweed and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat are buried there); not that the day was grim, overrun by shadows (it was gorgeous, breezy and fragrant, as evidenced below):

But for the first time, I felt like a trespasser. I wasn't there to grieve. That obelisk? Built in honor of no one I had heard of. This towering sculpture of an angel? Nightmarish with the sun setting behind it. The only sounds were my footsteps, and when I stopped walking, my pulse, and if you're anything like me, cursed by a nervous imagination, you start to think of silence as a precursor to noises you'd rather not hear, stirrings you'd prefer not to identify. I was alone but no longer felt alone.

Which pointed me, as luck would have it, to collegial memories of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA, where the wards get fat on cutting off solitude. Instead, pack a cooler, spread a blanket, and melt to the stylings of DJ Two-Tone's fusion of bossa-nova and house.

Cemeteries as centers of society, commerce, and entertainment? I'm game. I saw a screening of The Apartment at Hollywood Forever, and waded past revelers eating churros and buying skeleton trinkets at the least threatening Day of the Dead festival imaginable. Hollywood Forever -- "the resting place for Hollywood's immortals" -- actually has a forward-thinking service called Forever LifeStories, where loved ones -- digitally, with the help of a trained Biographer, and for a price -- compile photos, spoken descriptions, text, video clips, old film reels, awards, or other memoribilia to honor the deceased.

Are cemeteries sacred, vast wastes of space, or perfect for a night out with a few friends, a bottle of Merlot, a pack of Clove cigarettes and a Ouija board? How do cemeteries fit into your towns?

For the truly avid, check out the The Graveyard Rabbit, an association and blog dedicated to the historical importance of cemeteries, grave markers, burial customs, burying grounds, and tombstones.

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