Monday, April 5, 2010

Le déjeuner sur les morts: An afternoon with the quiescents

T'was a fragrant day at Woodlawn cemetery. After much Manhattan hustling and bustling, Erica and I decided a day spent quiescently with the deads of the Bronx would be a day well spent. Fortunately for us, the Bronx is home to one of the most gorgeous enshrinements of "rest" we have ever seen. Not only do the mixed-architecture mausoleums and toppling tombstones invite the living to participate in their restful state, but some very famous once-livings are planted there, under and in sundry burial markers.

Our principal visitation was to the family plot of Herman Melville. We luncheoned with him on the grass and moss in his rural neighborhood. At the back of the cemetery (the back because it is farthest from the public entrance on Jerome) are the oldest graves -- behind Herman there lie the even more dissipated remains of civil war veterans, mid-19th century preachers and the like. Herman met the reaper in 1891, right around the time when the cemetery was undergoing a sea change (haha) from rural to landscaped. A couple of avenues to the southwest of Melville's dust begin the winding roads and religiously confused mausoleums, almost Hollywood in their refusal to commit to one style of afterlife. But back where Herman resides, forever in Catalpa, one can really rest. Mossy mounds, gnarly trees, and ivy skirts around crumbling stones are the only landscaping found there.

We brought with us an offering of a pen, the usual writer's gift to a passed author. Erica attempted to get an autograph in her Signet Classics copy of Moby-Dick, but Herman was rather taciturn, despite the heavenly weather. We leafed through some chapters of the book and found another suggestion for an offering. We found sticks fashioned by mother nature to look like "the crotch," and thought them a meet reminder of the singularity of Melville's Moby-Dick chapters. We presented our crotches for Herman's approval.

Finally, we thanked Herman for inspiring my first seriously academic literature paper (written on "Bartleby" in 2008), and congratulated him on having the balls to make fun of the Transcendentalists in an era when doing so was akin to denying that Brooklyn hipsters really are hip.

Taking our leave of Herman, we had one more stop to make before heading back out onto the mean streets of the Bronx. We had to visit Miles Davis! On the way to his flashy marker, I scanned the graves for Countee Cullen, whom I couldn't find on the map. I wanted to shake my finger at him for costing me about 10 points on the GRE literature test. He was hiding; unlisted. We passed scores of Italians (dead) with their Palm Sunday crosses drying in the sun, and at the north point of the Alpine plots, there was Miles. Shining, reflecting, sporting a trumpet as always. Someone had left him an Easter bouquet, still fresh, and perfuming the neighborhood as the sun beat on the roses.

We had brought chocolates to share with him (lunch with a writer, dessert with a musician!), but it was too hot for the melty stuff. We sat with Sir Miles and the unfortunate dead bluebird (he must have been Kind of Blue) at the foot of his grave, watched ourselves in his glassy surface, and thanked him -- for bringing together the black and the white of the blues, for fusing such varied and unlikely musical stylings that paved the way for bands like Traffic, Frank Zappa, Steely Dan, and Miles knows what else. Then we turned toward the west to find our way over the grave-dirt hill to home, out of the heat.

We saw immeasurable beauty in that place. But we also saw some cheese, some anomalies, some weird. This Flanagan tombstone (below left) must be much newer than its Flanagan. It has a 1930s modern sort of look to it, like the cover of an Ayn Rand novel. But J. Fred died in 1888. If that's not weird enough, J. Fred's grave looks like it's wearing a thong, and doesn't have the ass to pull it off. Even stranger is Robert Schoonmaker's tombstone (below right). Because Robert Schoonmaker is not yet among the quiescent. It is common practice, we acknowledge, to put one's name on a tomb next to one's wife or siblings, etc, at the time the tombstone is first engraved. This saves money, and it communicates one's desires to the rest of the family, while letting visitors know the deceased, already underground, has loved ones waiting to meet them in the hereafter. This prudent pre-planning was not the basis for our objection to Robert's stone. Just look at him! For God's sake! The kicker? (or no longer kicking...): His mother is the person under the stone! A photo engraving of her is above. Obviously Robert wants to be buried with his mama (who was ancient, and it would be very odd, considering the trend during her childbearing years, if she didn't have other children -- he musta been her baby!), and while he was only 54 years of age at the time of her death, he could not forsee himself ever wanting to be buried alongside any other woman. And he obviously wants to remind mom daily of what a talent and a card he was, so she can anxiously await their reunion. The best part is he called himself "beloved son."

Another frightening and poignant thing we saw was a marker for "Our Children." Children's graves are always difficult to look upon, but some of them seem to have the strangest circumstances. These children had all died on separate dates, but within years of each other. None made it past age 5. The first died in 1859, before the cemetery had even broken ground, so these children were collected and put here together at a later date. The Lawn plot where they rest is beautiful, and watched over by an angelic Hellenistic statue (someone else's marker), who shields her eyes and looks westward from her post on the side of the hill above Woodlawn's Prospect Avenue. I can't imagine the burden the parents of "Our Children" bore, and I can't imagine what they were doing wrong to lose five children in the course of a decade.

On a lighter note, Erica and I would like to thank Mamita's (Home Made Style) Quiescently Frozen Confections of Ozone Park, NY, for inspiring the title of this entry, and endowing us with a very useful word, one whose disambiguation page on Wikipedia trumps even that of the academically ubiquitous "reify." Curiously, the disambiguation page for "quiescent," populated with everything from quantum physics to in utero applications, still does not include the all-important culinary application for the term. That's a shame, because just look at this lovely tube of Passion Cream quiescence.

A little treat for you (since I already ate the quiescent pop): Wiki's map of Woodlawn, with many notable deads marked in their places. It is a thing to behold.

"Who tha f*ck left this tree here? What tha -- c'MON!"
If you don't write a famous novel, eventually people stop cleaning off your grave.


  1. I love it! I've been waiting to read it. And every time I go in the deli I check out Mamita's Quiescently Frozen Confections to remind myself of your visit.

  2. Sweetheart, your intelligent beauty has left my heart in a thrall.


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