At sunset the best seats in the house (metaphorically speaking) turned out to occupy a waterfront graveyard.
This snippet of synesthesia—the musical sunset–brought to mind the story of death (lower case “d” intended; Saramago fans will understand) and the cellist. In this tale, death happened to be a beautiful 36-year-oldish woman. A lone persistently living professional cellist managed to divert her from her work. Death listened to him play the piano and experienced a sea change; although death “in the line of duty, had listened to a great deal of music, notably the same composer chopin’s funeral march and the adagio assai from beethoven’s third symphony, she, for the first time in her very long life, had a sense of what might well be the perfect blend of what is said and the way in which it is said.”
When I was little, I held my breath while passing graveyards. (This required quite a bit of training, and not inconsiderable hiding on the floor of our station wagon, given that I needed constant strep throat tests and my pediatrician’s preferred laboratory was across the street from the venerable Mt. Auburn cemetery, to which my mother always drove by rounding the corner of a Cambridge church with a gothically-fenced burial ground.)
OK, I also held my breath when I was not-so-little. Alright, alright: sometimes I still do it. And I always tried to step around the buried saints.
It still makes me wince to see a tiny colonial-era graveyard surrounded by modern development, McMansions or convenience stores. It seems disrespectful. Illogically, I wonder “Why should they be subjected to that view?”
But I had to get over the graveyard thing–not because the body that temporarily housed my husband’s soul resides there; it does not. Neither of us wanted that.
I know he would have wanted me to speak to the sky, not the ground. I visit him everywhere, and he visits me.
It happened that graveyards are a popular destination point for New Hampshire schoolchildren’s field trips.
Not far from here is Ogden Nash’s gravesite, to which an elementary school-aged daughter was dispatched in the course of a poetry project. She merrily tramped in fall leaves and among headstones and triumphantly arrived at the marker for a man of wondrous whimsical witticisms (despite popular misconceptions, he was not the poet who had never seen a purple cow, but he was the source of at least one ode to a drop or so of the hard stuff).
A son’s history class featured a trip to a centuries-old burial ground in Portsmouth. (As a bonus, when each class member had a chance to propose and vote for another field trip, my son proposed a walking tour of unsolved and untried murders, including the Islington Creek site where the unknown victim perished in the notorious killing recorded in The Ballad of Frenchman’s Lane. . . . I believe I know which side of the family he gets that from.)
Eventually some of my best friends lost parents, and I attended services and burials. Just down the street from the hospital where I was born is an endless, lavish cemetery I had been in just once during high school, on a dare from my friend Liz. (I remember she brought combs so we could make ourselves presentable for pictures, because she knew no one would believe she had coaxed me into a cemetery.)
So un-versed was I in the rituals of death that I did not attend a wake until I was a very young prosecutor. So gullible was I still at the time that when I tripped over a leaking green hose as we made our way across the parking lot, my office companion made me jump by saying, “Oh, that’s just embalming fluid.”
By the time our lovely youngsters grew into musicians and marching band members, I found I would need to tag along for Memorial Day parades and spend quite a bit of time in a particular cemetery. At that time of year, the black-clad band members require a flotilla of backups with water bottles at the ready.
That turned out to be the same cemetery to which I scurried to capture sunrise.
Shortly before Jim’s diagnosis, when he betrayed no signs of illness, he convinced me to go with him to Europe under the convenient pretext of picking up our elder daughter from a term in Germany. She did not truly require our assistance in making her way home.
During our stay, our younger daughter left a metro ticket stub on the enormous stone slab that marks the grave of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Yes, that was the same Simone de Beauvoir who outlived her partner and observed, “Old age is life’s parody, whereas death transforms life into a destiny: in a way it preserves it by giving it the absolute dimension. Death does away with time.”
Just across the street from the cemetery, an elderly woman politely asked us for help shifting the weight of her grocery bag and beamed at us and remarked upon what a nice couple we seemed.
I nervously squeezed Jim’s right hand as we walked through the maze of colorfully-decorated upright grave and baroque monuments at the Cimetière du Montparnasse–which frightened the dickens out of me when I was an elementary school student. While the girls rested, Jim and I walked hand-in-hand through gray Paris streets and past catacombs lined with human skulls and bones.
This weekend I had One of Those Feelings–not of impending doom, but of something I had to get out and see. It propelled me to grab my camera while the sky remained bright and very blustery, numbing my fingers against the cold blue metal. I walked down to the other side of the city, and by the time I reached the water I realized that the best vantage point of the sunset belonged to an even earlier burying ground.
I leaned on the very heavy black iron gate and pushed hard, because it opened into a bank of compacted snow. I walked towards the water’s edge and began taking pictures of the sky.
I looked at the first few photographs and noticed that a particular pair of side-by-side high rectangular headstones persistently crept into the frame. I had tried to limit the field to that which was not man-made.
I gave the pictures a closer look. At stage right, closest to the water and most prominent in my early photographs, was the headstone for a husband named James, who died at the age of 47 and whose inscription alluded to the nobility of an honest man. Next to his marker was one for his wife, who died at an inverse 74–and who happened to pass away on my birthday, a century before my own arrival on the planet. The inscription on the headstone of a widow who outlived her husband by 27 years noted the importance of her enduring friends.
I’m not sure any editorial comment is necessary.
Scottish author–and minister–George MacDonald remarked, “How strange this fear of death is! We are never frightened at sunset.”
That could be read a few ways, and he likely meant (especially given his spiritual day job) that the “end” comprised by sunset is not really an ending at all, but an inevitable part of a cycle of unending. (Death With Interruptions, the wonderful Saramago novel quoted above, is gorgeously cyclical in its own way, beginning and ending with the same sentence.)
But I think it’s also true that it is difficult to be frightened of anything when looking at a sunset.
Even alone in the cold as night falls in a graveyard.