Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas in the Cemetery

“Bring out the tall tales now that we told by the fire as the gaslight bubbled like a diver..’        - from “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (1954) by Dylan Thomas
Know what Christmas and photographing cemetery statuary have in common? No? …. Well neither do I. But suddenly, its Christmas, and I feel the need to connect the two. Sure, I could use Angels as the crossover vehicle, but that would be like shooting fish in a barrel. Christmas decorations in cemeteries are generally sad and depressing--I needed something edgier.

I was talking with my Mom recently and I guess because it’s close to Christmas she launched into a story about how much she enjoyed taffy pulls and plum pudding as a child at her grandmother’s house. Her grandparents were Welsh coal miners and celebrated Christmas in traditional ways, playing dominoes and Chinese Checkers, enjoying family. I never knew them, unfortunately--they all died off before and during my early childhood. I picture her as one of the children in Dylan Thomas’ poem, ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales.’

“For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. Mothers, aunts and sisters scuttled to and fro, bearing tureens. Auntie Bessie, who had already been frightened, twice, by a clock-work mouse, whimpered at the sideboard and had some elderberry wine.”

Perhaps the connection between cemeteries and Christmas is that the people in my mother’s story, as well as in Thomas’ poem, are long dead. Friends have died as well—kids I knew and played pond hockey with—fell through the ice and drowned, as Thomas writes, "small boys, though warned with quotations not to, would skate on Farmer Giles' pond and did and drowned…”

Not having any particular talent for marrying an assortment of disparate topics together in any sort of cogent narrative, I decided to temporarily shelve this blog. While I usually wear my limitations with pride, I believe, like Keats, that if writing doesn’t come as naturally as leaves to a tree, it ought not to come at all. So instead of forcing myself to continue, I’ll put it aside until the ending ceases to elude me.

There, I’m back. That didn’t take long, now did it? Like writer’s block for Stephen King. To get the incubus of this story off my chest, I drove out to my favorite abandoned cemetery and realized that what I REALLY want for Christmas is snow! I want to see the tombstones and mausoleums in this godforsaken overgrown forest of a cemetery, “in the muffling silence of eternal snows.” What a wonderful decoration that would be!

Snow, a metaphor for purity, always adds a layer of beguiling beauty over the ground, like pancake makeup on the face of a grimy old clown. Such a pall would cover the dumped loads of building materials, the old mattresses and church pews. It may add some adventure as you step through the snow only to smash through some discarded stained glass window or bag of garbage. But all this can only add to the experience. Snow is magical and theatrical at the same time--it would cap and clothe the broken limbed cemetery angels and hide our indiscretions.
“It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. …snow was not only shaken from white wash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees.”
Me, climbing over a tombstone, desecrated by wreck of a torched car 
In such a winter wonderland, the abandoned cemetery may not seem such a sad place. Like a veil hiding the sins of stolen cars and illegal burials, the snow would make everything sordid appear normal and clean. The feral cats and wild pit bulls will either adapt, or die. The cats turning into polar felines gliding through the drifts, like the ones Thomas describes as he waits to snowball them. One wonders where the feral pit bulls have gone for the winter? Maybe the turkey vultures got them.

I write this as an old friend emails me and tells me he’s having brain surgery in two days, and may not make it. Back yonder, I wasn’t sure how to end this story. Be careful what you wish for. The regret I have is not seeing him as often as I should have, like the regret of not having made the effort to save an abandoned cemetery. Ironic in that the purpose of a cemetery is to help us remember people. When we desert a cemetery, we desert our own history. Do we fear the ghosts of our past so much? Our society is not as apt to pave a cemetery as it is to raze an historic building. The result is that in many cases, the cemetery is simply abandoned. Better that it be forgotten than lost, however, because then there is still hope for recovery.

That’s when it occurred to me—what better way to bring attention to urban blight in need of healing than to light up this old forgotten dump of a cemetery with Christmas Lights! A cause célèbre! If I had the wherewithal, I’d buy a diesel generator, tow it here, and use it to power thousands of big old-fashioned lights that I would string from the peaks and eaves of the old mausoleums!

Wait, I know what you’re thinking—that I’m writing this on my day pass from the asylum. But think of it! With snow falling, standing in the center of a circle of decrepit old tombs, faux dwellings illuminated by joyous lights strung from one to the other, like so many South Philly rowhomes! The mausoleums built on the high ridge are about the only structures you can see from the parkway--imagine the drivers slowing down to look! Imagine this circle of mournfully extravagant, blocked up and grafittied memorials awash in falling snow—a funereal snowglobe of emotion that would draw everyone’s attention to mortality, and possibly encourage us to respectfully treat each other as equals, or as Dickens put it, "fellow passengers to the grave."

Christmas lights on Mausoleum Ridge

This Christmas I think of all the familiar voices that have fallen silent in my life, whose lives have vanished and become no more than a dream. This once-grand Victorian cemetery that boasted inhabitants of consequence, now rots in peace. Its residents no more heeded than angels with broken wings. Maybe the Jews have the right idea, avoiding “guardian angels” in their funerary art. A cracked angel is a forlorn sight, and makes one even more sullen when seen in the midst of such squalor. I once asked a Jewish friend of mine why there are no angels in Jewish cemeteries. She humorously answered, “They would interfere with our suffering.”

I’ve just seen the weather report—it’s supposed to snow on Christmas! I’ll dream about abandoned mausoleums strung with Christmas lights, to illuminate the memory of people we’ve lost and people we’ve forgotten. To quote Dylan Thomas, “I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.“ Merry Christmas, everyone.

Notes and Links of Interest:

“A Child’s Christmas in Wales” by Dylan Thomas
Read more by Dylan Thomas
Lose yourself in the musical imagery of John Cale’s version of Thomas' poem:

Photo of me and the torched, stolen car taken by Frank Rausch.