A few years ago the cemetery lost my grandfather.
He’d been buried almost a quarter century before and I’d be surprised if anyone had visited his grave in twenty of those years. We all loved Grandpa Ray, it wasn’t that we were glad to be rid of him or cursed his memory. Rather, it just isn’t the custom in my family to make manifest the connection between the living and the dead in the physical space of their repose. Which, I suppose, is a fancypants way of saying “don’t expect visitors” once you’re in the ground. We do mourn. We do share stories and heal as best we can – knowing the wounds and the joys of the loss and the love are both terminal. Then, as time passes, the reverie recedes into our hearts and our consciousness and we say goodbye alone.
Knowing that Grandma was nearing the end of her contract (at least for this go round) my mother made her way to Vestal Hills Cemetery, and asked the groundskeeper where, exactly, Ray Parker had been earthed. A visit to the manager’s office yielded many papers, a few maps, nervous laughter, furrowed brows, scratched heads, and a final, “Ummm, sorry Mrs. Tallon, but… ah… um… he doesn’t seem to be here.”
“Well, sure he’s here, of course he’s here. I’m certain he’s here. Do you remember where he was…? No…? Of course, Mrs. Tallon… Look, I’ll, I’ll call first thing tomorrow.”
Mom came home and with some nervous tension told the family that the cemetery had lost Grandpa. Someone made a joke about him slipping out for a drink. Same old Ray. Ha ha ha. And each of us quietly wondered if the cemetery management just figured we’d forgotten about Ray and resold the plot.
That’s not a very good feeling.
In the end, they found him. There are no standing stones at Vestal Hills, only marble plaques flush to the ground. Well, it seems that some years before a drunken gravedigger had taken out the Parker marker with his backhoe by mistake. Keeping the dead buried is a business. The backhoe driver didn’t have the money to fix it. The cemetery wasn’t going to fix it on their dime and figured that eventually we’d show up to foot the bill. We did.
But in the end, Ray was there and he wasn’t complaining about the view. A few years later, my grandmother joined him. I love her as much as I’ve ever loved another human being, but I haven’t been to visit her, either.
Several months ago a friend of mine died here in Guatemala. He was a young man of 25 years. He’d been ill, and we all knew that. But, still, when he went it was a terrible shock.
His family came to be with his friends in Antigua in the week following Chris’ death. We raised a glass, shared some stories, and gave our weak condolences to one another. His mother and father promised to return in early September to visit us again on what would have been his 26th birthday.
They took Chris’ body home for a cremation, and when they returned, they brought some of his ashes back for an internment in the Cementerio General in Antigua. Chris’ girlfriend, Evelyn, and I went with them to the graveyard. There were the standard screw-ups with the bureaucracy, and on his plaque the monument company had mis-inscribed the date of his death. Because of this, we couldn’t place the plaque that day and his parents were scheduled to fly back to the States the following morning. I promised his family that I would make sure that all was taken care of within a week. I assured them that I would return to take a photo to let them know that all was well.
For weeks I didn’t.
Life got in the way, and as I’ve learned since then, that’s a pretty shitty excuse for failing to remember those we’ve lost.
Finally, I did return to take some photos of Chris’ grave for his folks. Although I’d been there a short time before, I didn’t remember the exact place of Chris’ grave.
I lost Chris. Or someone had. I was both ashamed for not having returned before this, but also pissed at the Cemetery for being so irresponsible. “How dare they…?” Was much easier on the soul than “How dare I…?”
I stormed off to the manager’s office full of vinegar and explained what I thought had happened. Without reference to paper or map he said to his assistant, an old woman, that I was looking for Chris Cleveland. He said, “You remember, Evelyn’s boyfriend. We received him about two months ago.”
His assistant took me to the spot, only a few feet away from where I’d been fuming, and assured me that his grave had been well tended. The plaque had been both fixed and affixed to his site. She assured me that they hadn’t forgotten Chris, nor would they.
In Guatemala there is a different ethic regarding final resting places than exists in my family and it is something from which we might take value.
On November 1st, the Day of the Dead, I was invited by friends to visit a cemetery in Santiago, Sacatepequez and there I learned something else about the value of remembrance that I’d never known.
We arrived at about 2 in the afternoon and were taken aback by the life we found in the graveyard. Thousands of people were eating, drinking and beautifying the graves. And there were kites everywhere.
After buying a slice of pizza sold by one of the army of vendors circulating around the periphery of the cemetery, we walked into the graveyard proper. At first we were gentle about stepping around recent burial mounds but, really, you just couldn’t be careful enough. The mounds, the mausoleums, the entire area was an open fair of people bustling, eating and drinking. And laced throughout it all, like arteries, were twine ropes attached to huge kites – some 12 feet tall – built of tissue paper on bamboo frames – being readied to fly.
There were already a few of the barriletes gigantes in the sky, accenting a blue and white field of hundreds of other smaller kites.
My friend, Charlie, who has been living out in San Antonio Aguas Calientes for a year or so, filled me in on the traditions associated with the practice.
It is believed that every year, at the end of October, souls rise from their graves and flit about the world for a bit, seeking out their homes and their loved ones. The kites are flown on the Day of the Dead to encourage the departed to slide down the ropes and be reunited with their families. Charlie told me that he’d heard this was a win – win situation for souls, both living and dead. Connections were made, drinks were shared, reunion was achieved, and then – when the kites were burned at the end of the celebration, the dead were returned to their graves for another year so that they didn’t make too much trouble for the living over the coming 12 months.
After half an hour I found myself wandering off to be alone. I snapped a few photos and sat down on a grave. The wind was picking up and groups of teenagers set to getting their kites in the air.
To fly them up a team of 6 or 7 boys stretch out their line, with one boy anchoring the kite itself. Then, when the breeze was right a signal was made and the team of runners would sprint through the obstacle course of the graves, bounding over, through, around the plots’ of their ancestors and as the kites took the wing the crowd would make a low roar of hope, building to crescendo if the kite won the wind, and laughing their asses off if it crashed back down to earth. Another friend told me later that a number of people had been killed over the years by falling kites. Ironic, that.
I don’t have any great faith in the hereafter, nor do I think it’s all a bunch of bunk. I just don’t know what happens after death – and I’m okay with the ambiguity. If it’s a cosmic re-assignment like the Buddhists believe, great. If it’s heaven – even better. If it’s resting in a grave for a year then getting out and stretching your wings for a bit, lovely. And if it’s just the end, so be it.
But there, in the Santiago boneyard, I was caught by the metaphorical beauty of it all, whatever it is.
See, as the boys took to running we were gathered, as a community and as strangers wishing that for just a moment some of us might be able to transcend the limits of our daily lives. Thousands of us were there, focused on seven anonymous boys who’d created an impossible beauty of ordinary things – imploring the Almighty or a fortunate breeze to look favorably upon their efforts, so that, if only for an hour, some of us could win a victory against our own ashes and dust.
The kite jumped 20 feet up. It’s tail whipping through the crowd and lashing more than a few faces in the process. The crowd held its breath as the kite lunged down and to the right. It was headed straight for a mausoleum. This wasn’t going to end well.
And then it rose straight up two hundred feet. The crowd exploded in applause and almost immediately turned their collective attention to another group of boys set upon the same course.
Each one of us knew, I’m sure, that in a few ticks of the eternal clock, these kites would crash back down to the earth between the stones. That’s the way of the world. But for a few moments, it didn’t matter.
The chilling lesson standing outside the graveyard and looking in is that the ride seems so terribly short. The warming lesson inside the graveyard and looking up is that it can be so very beautiful.
On the ground next to the grave where I was sitting, was a small kite that had broken loose from its boy. It still had about fifty feet of string attached. I picked it up, waited for a propitious wind, and let it sail – remembering both Chris and my grandfather, my grandmother and all the brothers I’ve lost along the way. I tugged the string to invite them to come back home for a while.
They accepted and sent a message down the line.