"A dreaded sunny day, so I'll meet you at the cemetery gates." -Morrissey
A long dark weekend in January. I was listening to Gospel music on the radio in celebration of Martin Luther King Day, when my friend called me for a walk in the park. I had a counter offer; how about Greenwood Cemetary instead? My husband Conor and I have become regular Greenwood-goers as it is by far the most peaceful place in Brooklyn. It is also one of the rare spots in the city where you can actually hear silence.
"Nothing in the universe resembles god so much as silence." -Meiser Eckhardt
Conor tells me he prefers the company of the dead, over the Park Slope stroller-pushers and joggers that inhabit Prospect Park. Call me morbid, but I sometimes agree.
I've been frequenting cemeteries since I was in my teens. Once when I was in high school I found a tombstone with my name carved on it. A woman, like me, who had lived and died one hundred years ago. Seeing my name etched in stone had shifted something in my consciousness. I realized at that moment that life was passing by, and passing quickly; I had better make the most of the moments I had left. Visiting cemeteries had also sparked an interested in poetry, and the words of the dead. I admired the great thinkers who composed poetry that could stand the test of time. They could summon words that outlived even their physical existence. People like Kahlil Gibran, a 13th century mystic whose powerful words still have the power to move us hundreds of years after his death.
"For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?"
-Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
Growing up in Racine, Wisconsin, a depressed Midwestern city with very few places for teens to hang out, the cemetery was a quiet place where I could go and think. It offered a space for contemplation. For this reason I still think it is an ideal place to visit with someone you love. Being in a graveyard you can't help but have a rich and meaningful conversation. How can you not think of eternal things when you are passing by tombstones?
When I visit the cemetary with my husband we quietly walk and honor the dead. We read the names off the stones, noticing birth and death dates. My imagination takes hold as I think about the story of all those lives. Often there is a family all buried together, their graves spaced gently apart. Sometimes a couple will get a tombstone together. The husband's name will be carved with his death date. Next to it; a blank space for his beloved, a date that is yet to come.
Seeing such a thing makes time together feel even more precious.
So Monday, I took a walk with my friend, who was visiting Greenwood for the first time. She admired all the tombs and statues as we talked about relationships, and our dreams for the future. She told me about the love she craves, and I spoke about the baby I hope I will someday have. My friend is wild, passionate and refuses to follow any rules.
When I am with her I feel reckless, and I throw caution to the wind. We meandered up and down and through the cemetary's many paths, eventually losing our way. If I had been walking alone I would not have strayed so far, but with her I lost track of the time. We both knew that the sun was setting and the gates would close at five. But it was a spectacular sunset and it was so peaceful to be there. Suddenly I checked my cell phone for the time and we realized we had five minutes to find our way out.
I have no sense of direction. I find I've led us the wrong way for awhile, until she took over. Eventually, eight minutes after closing, we made our way to the gothic spired gates, found our car and started off. We passed through the main gates without a hitch, but realized driving down the exit road that the twenty foot high metal outer gate was securely locked with a chain.
We were trapped, and in a panic. Would we have to spend the night here? It would be an experience, a funny story to tell. But, I wasn't sure that sleep would even be possible alongside legions of the recent and not-so-recently departed. As I did the psychological math in my head, I noticed a sign with an emergency hotline. Moments later, a bemused patrol man came to our rescue. I got the feeling that this sort of thing happened more than occasionally. He seemed to drag out the process of unlocking the gate as a sort of fine for our trespass. He gave the impression that he relished the fact that he was the only one with a key to the gates of the 'city of the dead.' I thought to myself: one day you will come here, and there won't be someone with a key to offer an escape.