Visiting Brooklyn’s City of the Dead


The season of heavy moments came upon me this past week (before swiftly turning to the time when we all dissolve to gray in those worst of months called winter). In the passing season, I threw myself into the heaviness, and perhaps a little too hard because the only thing that pulled me away from the distractions of high speed internet was the allure of death. This is how I found myself walking through the crow-infested arches of Green-wood Cemetery into the city of the dead.

The city of death was surprisingly like the city it is situated in. There are street signs and street names, some very familiar like Atlantic Avenue, and others more strange, like Heliotrope Path. Like the larger one, it is filled with tourists seeking to be impressed by a sense of grandeur and history. Shamelessly they turned their lenses to the resting places of strangers trawling their nets of experience for some meaningful image. Despite the sight seers, the city of death was, as you might suspect, a very quiet city. Perhaps then the strangers, whom I turned back from or crossed the street to avoid, did also sense the weight of transgression in that place. There was no one watching me but I felt afraid to place one little toe outside the boundaries of the paths, or like others had done, place stones upon the graves to signify…what? I didn’t feel like taking pictures, though admittedly I had brought the digital camera along, and I certainly didn’t feel like finding the gift shop, though admittedly I had brought postcard money along.

Another strange fact to me was that not only a place to picnic and stroll but it has also long been considered the place to rot in and rest forever. My favorite book of the bible (don’t ask me why I have one because I really don’t know) is Ecclesiastes, a book very suited for cemeteries. I thought of it often, particularly the part about vanity, while walking the paths. The cemetery itself is vain boasting of the famous people within its walls and even opening up some of the tombs to the public. These include of course only the more elaborate tombs, lined up like brownstones on Prospect Park West or rather Ocean Hill as its called here. Some looked like dungeons, some looked like palaces and one in particular I remember was shaped like a pyramid with a sphinx, a Jesus, a Mary, a baby Jesus and a lamb situated at its door.

But there were also neighborhoods for the common person, like Public Lot 7642 where all the small tombstones looked like little thumbs or tongues sticking their existences out to the sky. Then there were the buildings that defied all classical style or statuary. I thought of them as condos of the dead. Like the atrocities cropping up around the larger city, they were mostly made of glass and steel and angles but instead of heartless young people they were filled with the lifeless old. I didn’t learn much history at Green-wood cemetery but I did learn a bit about the patterns of death: it is not all that different from living. In our larger city, I suspect it is similar: we will have less and less to learn about history and more and more to learn about the patterns of dying.

As I left the cemetery I saw a large group of people exiting some building whose purpose I was unsure of but seemed to be ceremonial. I was embarrassed. While some carried bouquets I held a notebook and pencil writing down interesting names. This is the strangeness that comes with visiting a cemetery not to mourn, but to somehow enrich your own life if only for an afternoon. Was I surrounding myself with death to feel more alive or did I want to feel more dead? The wind through the trees was certainly invigorating and I found my second thing to crunch underfoot after snow was the shells of some nut, not acorn but something else. This I suppose is the stuff of life, but just as I had left television for death, after my walk through the city of death, I returned to television. Let’s hope I don’t spend all winter in that horrible purgatory, the space where one is neither dead nor alive.

But now it is Halloween and I am off to the cemetery once more!

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