In sister’s garden silent and still;
An angel became —Georg Trakl
A blank-skied Tuesday morning, and the grounds are cleared of mourners. Or, partly cleared—a station wagon rears its head from out of the aisles, comes grumbling down, the family inside seems confused: how will they wrestle their name from the uniformity of death, the name that cannot help but be bleached in the light above?
A lack of mourners but not a lack of engines: above the cemetery, the I-10 arches by, irrevocably alive with hurrying souls that cannot pass without their periphery being assaulted by the gridwork of the flashing tombs. They speed through, rush with the bodies all around them, but the tombs flicker beyond the overpass. Hundreds of tombs laid out with a precision that must’ve given the Bonapartists more reason to feast and flounder till the night paled over, till their bibs fell to the floor and the maniacal music by the dock finally went sour. Why did they fashion it with such unflagging regularity? So that it would be unnoticed by those passing by, so that those in carriages, bouncing down City Park, remained entranced by the cracking hide? Although the regularity can become jumbled into one non-descript mass, it nevertheless demands attention. Even the most weathered traveler through New Orleans’ streets must admire the precision of the plots and the meticulous paths that cut through the towering tombs and blinding marble. And those rushing by on the Interstate, no matter how fast their wheels spin, cannot escape the Cemetery’s Theatre of Memory, its epic push to remind the hurrying and mortal soul, to silently admonish the traveler for believing, but for a moment, that he could glide through this life, this city without paying the toll of remembrance.
All the burial mounds are raised above ground level. “It’s hell,” said Dia, a West-African groundskeeper, “trying to keep everything packed in. You gotta keep the dirt fresh so that it looks nice, y’know? You want it to look freshly turned and raked, looking good.” His skin is as smooth and rounded as the marble he attends to. Only his hands are roughened. He and his crew wheel about the labyrinthine pathways in their cart, look for dirt that hasn’t fully been packed in and turned, dirt that has splashed from its bed and stained the tombs. If they see flowers that have spilled from their vases, they attend to that. If a name is muddied, they polish it. If the grass sprouts thorns, they come in and mow it down. And, of course, they dig. One groundskeeper stands over the hole that he’s digging. Another West African, he is completely possessed by the void opening up beneath him. He watches the myriad of translucent worms and beetles as they try to free themselves from the light that pours in. He doesn’t bother with the sweat that is spilling into the corners of his eyes. He digs while the worms dig—both digging to free themselves. Dia says that his co-worker hasn’t said anything really since the flood. After work, he waits at the bus-stop, doesn’t even smile when Dia and the others drive by on their way to the bars, honking their horns.
The night before, rains came. Dia and his crew have to drive around today, turn the mounds before they become hardened, before the wind slides through and dries out the dirt. If it hardens, it begins to crack. This angers the mourners when they come, says Dia. Rifts spread over the plots. Air and light can fall through more easily, speeding up the decomposition of the corpses. The best kind of dirt, the dirt that pleases the families the most is dirt that resembles soft and virginal clouds, dirt that any amateur gardener would approve of when choosing where to place his tulips. “They pay a lot of money to sleep here,” says Dia, arranging a wreath that toppled over. “We’re running a hotel. A nice one. We gotta make sure that they sleep good, that everything looks good, that the sheets are tidy, that all the pillows are fluffed.” Maintaining the rooms for these permanent guests is a nearly impossible task. Thousands of rooms. Thousands of unhappy and sleepless bodies. Earth that will not succumb to any spade or shovel. Earth that rises with the rain, towers up in the flood, turns into a thick soup that sits in the sun for days, rank and steaming. To counteract this problem, the burial plots are poured into marble tubs. These tubs rise a few feet above ground with steps, usually two or three number, that lead to the pools of dirt within. The steps provide unobstructed access to the mounds. If mourners ever place flowers for their dearly departed, they do so on the edges of the tubs or scatter them beneath the shadow of the headstone. A soul could then easily climb these steps, linger near the edge, debate whether or not it should make the plunge like a diver nervously anticipating the fall. The soul can now enter and exit the tomb according to the dictates of its intemperate will. Part of Dia’s job is to ensure that the soul has access from this world to the other, that it will not trip over any mortal waste, any petty alms left there to block its passage.
Atop one mound, there rests a seashell: a beautiful one with many red and pink bands weaving around its pearly surface. It couldn’t have been left over by the flood. No, it had to have been placed there by a family passing through, a family either too poor to buy flowers or too disdainful of such worn devices. Dia knows of other plots with seashells, but both their origin and significance are unknown to him. Perhaps the seashells provide a desired obstruction. Perhaps the families bury their loved one, then decide to keep their souls locked beneath, untouched by the beckoning of either heaven or hell. The seashell weighs above the corpse, ensures that the soul doesn’t float above, that it doesn’t stray from the earth, that it remains tethered to its body, its shell quickly dissolving. Or the shell speaks of corporeal permanence: the everlasting nature of our outer layers. As the soul abandons us in death, the body remains intact, with glistening edges. In either case, this world is prized over the other. The cemetery becomes a place where the Christian Death is subtly subverted, where the body attains an immortal stature, where dirt is cultivated, not the soul. Throughout the sea of marble, only a single Mary could be seen rising with open arms. Her cloak, blue as the waters that surely washed over her and slightly disfigured her smile, extends outward in folds that cover her feet. Her eyes are glazed over and a pallor perches on her cheeks. She has stopped trying to hide her exhaustion. The task of both raising the dead and then embracing them has wearied her so that, if you look closely, her arms seem to tremble, barely able to withstand any longer the weight of the role she has been forced into.
As Mary struggles to hold back her resignation, her graceless defeat before the waves of peripatetic souls crowding upon her in search of their comfortable immortality, the gargoyles sit back, their roving eyes buried in cheeks tightened with glee. They decorate the rooftops and verandas, balconies and windows. Smiles chiseled on their faces; teeth sharpened to forewarn spirits of harm. It’s remarkable how smooth and almost babyish their skin is considering the role they’re forced into. When these spirits approach, they immediately recoil back, driven away by the gargoyles’ impermeable confidence, the officious smell of their arrogance. They remain poised as all the muck flies upward and tries to wash over them into places of mortal refuge. Dia says that they smile because they’re so high up and all the shit below passes beneath them: “Look at ‘em,” he says. “So giggly and proud. They ain’t looking out for no one but themselves.” In a café near Tulane, a marble gargoyle sits high above the smoke that drifts from the cappuccino machines. It’s face has an eternally youthful glow, broken coffee cups lie scattered at its grimy feet as it sits there atop a stack of torn bibles. You can imagine it standing up ever so often, stretching its back, picking its toenails clean of the centuries of dust and flicking it out over the students pointing their noses to their screens. Yes, its spine is stiffened from centuries of holding the same crooked posture, but the moment it stands and stretches its arms and wiggles its soft fingers, its nimbleness returns. Now its ready for another three hundred years, for all the storms spilling from heaven, the pirates and marauders, the bumbling officials, the floods and sports parades, the tourists who come to pour out their grievances, cut themselves loose of the Midwestern grind—the gargoyle’s prepared for it all, grinning, crouching over chaos.
Earlier today, another gargoyle had shown it’s face: this time, instead of being rendered in smooth marble and perched high above, it was scrawled on the side of a flood-ravaged home in pink spray paint. Once again, two teeth jutted out past the bottom lip. Its eyes were tightened and pinched off at the corners, right above its dimpled cheeks. Next to this hastily-drawn (but that doesn’t detract from its prohibitive force) creature, there was written, HAVE YOU SEEN THIS FACE?, between two shattered windows that looked onto sawdust floors and coiled wire that swung down from the caved-in ceilings, near the wall that lead to a kitchen where no light shone. Whoever had abandoned the home had summoned gargoyles, not angels, to protect them.
When salvation becomes urgent, the gargoyle is preferred over the benign legacy of the angel. Rilke’s dictum that angels are terrifying becomes suspect: those who were in need of rescue did not call on the angels to protect them. Is it because angels are easily prone to trembling, to revealing their vulnerability when the spirits of harm come rushing through? Angels are not agile enough to sift through the horrors of the street—they are weighed down, made clumsy by their opulent wings. Angels perch low enough to be stricken and stained by the tide. Stubborn algae clings to their cloaks, hangs about their contemplative profiles—they are wrapped up in their own visions, oblivious to the strangers who wander through the parched yards, usually fixated on one thing alone: how to ensure for themselves the highest place in the divine hierarchy. Mortals reciprocate this lack of concern—thieves often chip off chunks of their bodies with hammers: the price the angels pay for remaining so low to the earth.
In the cemetery, the angels have benumbed looks on their faces. Of course, they’re dreaming, but their dreams seem to have lost that first captivating sheen, the initial allure of the impossible. Like Mary, the angels try their hardest to display a look of persevering calm despite the anxious hum of traffic above, the sticky wind that nibbles at their plump cheeks. As the cars blast in and out of the city, into the suburbs, out towards the ashen waters of the Gulf, both Mary and the angels are reminded of all the dead that they must soon embrace and of all living that they must attend to.
Dia walks on a stiff leg between the rows of tombs, dragging his shovel. For him, the dead are unloved, only recipients of solemn rituals and lip service. No love despite the ornate shrines erected to preserve the memory of their names. Only their names: the rest is hidden, mired in whispers and held in darkness for as long as the tomb arching above holds its confident posture, as long the name expertly etched can be read by the few undead who saunter by with their arms locked behind their backs. Imprisoned but with names that are eternally valorized, dates that are bound together with hyphens—two things that many of them spent their whole lives trying to run away from. But that name is the only word most people ever leave behind: their legacy spelled in stone. “We don’t let ‘em rest,” says Dia. “Spend all that time tryin’ to put them here, deep beneath…but no one really gives them peace. At night, you got these kids zooming around, hooked to something, leaving trash all up and down here. Even on the mounds you got beer cans, other shit. And then you got the freeway: I always wonder if the sounds of all those cars puts ‘em all to sleep, deeper to sleep, or if it gets beneath their skin and keeps ‘em up at night, cursing only themselves. I don’t know if they ever get the rest they’re promised.”
That promise, intoned by the priests over the opened crypt, was surely broken when the floods came, but the New Orleans dead are wise enough to not believe every promise scattered over their powered smiles. They expected upheavals, sudden forced exiles from their alien asylums. But did they expect to be floating over the city, cast off into neighborhoods that they used to take their Sunday drives through? When the floods swept through Metairie and Greenwood, the coarse tongue of the Mississippi lapped up all the promises inscribed there.