I see dead people. Every day, I am presented with the physical manifestations of eternity. Or maybe faith is the better term. I live amid the remnants and architecture of ritual. I bear witness to the ceremonial and liturgical transference of the departed from this world to, presumably, the next.
Fancy talk for telling you: I live next to a cemetery.
In some towns, that might not be a good thing. It might be spooky or depressing. I don't know anything about real estate, but it seems reasonable to postulate that these little cities of granite, marble and stone, with their solicitations of grief and their constant reminder of mortality — hell, why sugarcoat? With their constant reminder of death! — might not be the curb appeal every potential homebuyer is looking for.
In some towns.
They are serene, oddly comforting, the small, quiet gatherings that occur here. There are no more than two or three a month in my cemetery, it seems. They never strike me as depressing. Truth is, I hear more laughter in my cemetery than sorrow. Maybe that's part of New Orleans' curious relationship with death; you know, that "we put the 'fun' in funerals" thing.
I have lived in New Orleans for 25 years, but only this fall did I move across the street from a cemetery. It is such an iconic neighbor, like living, I suppose, next to a vineyard in France, a Roman aqueduct in Italy, pyramids in Egypt or in the shadow of the Great Wall of China; before the senses have fully taken in the surroundings, the story of these places is already revealed to us. They are not natural wonders by any means, but reminders that man, too, is capable of producing wondrous things.
That's one way to put it. The terms I generally use to describe living next to a cemetery are considerably less didactic: "It's really cool!" is generally how I explain it to my friends.
Most old cities seem to have at least one cemetery that is a source of civic pride and/or historical significance. But I don't know of any other place where every cemetery invokes a sense of place, a sense of pride; in New Orleans, cemeteries are among the most pervasive and visible reminders of our otherness.
Drop me into a cemetery anywhere else in the country, and I would be at a loss to tell you where I am. Drop me off in New Orleans, and I can tell you immediately: I am home.
My kids — 7, 9 and 11 — are just getting over their squeamishness about our new neighbors. For a long time, they exuded a determined disinterest in the cemetery; they knew they weren't supposed to be scared of it — after all, the other kids in the neighborhood seem fine with it — but, still, they were pretty freaked out for a while.
Now, we walk our dog, scooter and play in our cemetery. In fact, I've often wondered about the propriety of that, wondered, as I once watched my children play hide and seek: What are the boundaries?
Many years ago, a girlfriend of mine took my mother and my aunt — visiting from Maryland — to lunch while I was at work. She picked up some seafood po-boys and sodas at the St. Roch Market and took them to St. Roch Cemetery where she spread their bounty across a stranger's tomb and they ate and visited with each other.
Needless to say, my folks thought St. Roch was a marvelous, beautiful place to behold. But the story they brought home with them was about the curious girl who took them to lunch at a cemetery! Now there's a story for the folks back home.
But that's what we do, no? Is that OK? What are the rules, I have always wondered? (And I've no doubt that before this week is out, someone will dutifully inform me.)
My cemetery is rundown, overgrown and mostly deserted. Tourists don't come here. But I find I have taken a proprietary interest in my cemetery. To me, it is prettier than all the grand Cities of the Dead that make New Orleans famous.
Funny, I realize: I love my cemetery. From it, I draw a great deal of reflection, serenity and peace. Odd, but from my cemetery, I draw so much life.