Angle of Repose

Paul Greenberg

1/9/2013 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

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 ain't the dead who'll hurt you," as an old black man told me when I was a boy passing another cemetery. Maybe I'd looked uneasy. 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 neighbohoods and economy class forever awaiting gentrification. What a rich selection of tombs to chose from: art deco, art nouveau, baroque, neo-Gothic . . . .

The variety is impressive. There's a style for every taste and pocketbook. The towers tower, the more modest gravestones seem to bow. Many of the mansions are scrupulously maintained, others have fallen into ruin. Like any other sprawling neighborhood in a great city, it attracts all kinds. But here the tenants are all equal, having shared a common mortality.

An elegant city, Buenos Aires, both in life and death. Among the notable tenants of La Recoleta is Evita Peron, as stylish in her environs as when she was exhorting the masses in life. So little changes when everything does.

Here in Little Rock, 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.

I place the little stone I've picked up somewhere and put it on her marker, as is the custom. In the same way, in a different era, you'd leave a calling card. There is no need to exchange words. She understands wordlessly, as she often did in life, while I still see through a glass darkly.

I remember when we chose this address. The man who was going to help us choose a plot was late. It was hot and I was uncomfortable, ready to have done with it. Like the buyer in any real estate market, I gave a glance around, thinking of location, location, location.

There was a shady patch under the trees up a small incline where the principal streets ended. It looked good to a boy from the piney woods. When I indicated it with a nod, the look on her face needed no words. She was horrified. A girl from deep in the heart of Texas, she didn't want to be fenced in. She wanted wide open spaces, under starry skies above. A place on the main drag, where all who passed would be welcome to linger. She was always that way -- hospitable. But never pressing. A friend once said that to be in her presence was to be aware of a great intelligence but one that never imposed. Wouldn't dream of it.

It was hard to leave. But back at the newspaper, deadlines loomed, the usual mass of unimportances awaited, the sweep-second hand on my wristwatch went on sweeping, just as it does outside the cemetery gates. But here there was time, all the time in the world. And beyond.

Even here things were required. I had to find the water faucet. A levite, I am obliged to wash my hands after visiting burial grounds. I lingered for a last look. There was my own grave beside hers, waiting. It promised -- what? Surcease, indifference, a pause forever? No one knows this side of it. But it looked inviting. I tore myself away. It was all right. I'm sure to be back.