Cementerio Británico, Buenos Aires
9 de mayo del 2015
That’s the first Orthodox cross I ever saw on a grave. On either side of an austere Anglican chapel holding court in Chacarita are rows and rows of these three-bar crosses, poking out into the leaves in memory eternal. They stud the British cemetery in Buenos Aires, started for the empire’s sailors and entrepreneurs in the early 1800s, now home to an assortment of ethnically awkward resting souls. This ground takes in everyone Recoleta fences out: Brits, Irishmen, Armenians, Georgians, Russians, Jews, Germans, Americans. You know, the consonant folk. I felt every part of me at home, my London-born Orthodoxy, my American pedigree, my Argentine postcode, my urban mind starved for quiet.
I absorbed the train exhaust, the dripping hoses, the hungry flies, the plastic blooms gone soft in the afternoon sun. I bent down to read each name, date, and dash. And I looked at this eclectic field the way I’ve been known to look at soccer tactics, mid-blaze essays and old friends. Right, I thought. So this is where we go.
I’ve been in mourning all week. Not quite mourning, the feeling. That usually hits me about six months after. But mourning, the ritual: mourning, the meal preparation; mourning, the black clothes I wear to work; mourning, the daily office for the dead; mourning, the extra love yous and lingering. Solemnity adds a grandeur to the train ride out in the form of a black scarf, a quietness to the train ride home inside a prayer book. It’s automatic, now, but that doesn’t make it any less dignified. I feel at home inside these deep fabrics and worn pages. Right, I remember.
We picked up each other’s kids from soccer practice, we took turns being confirmation sponsors, we teamed up for double dutch and we lost track of borrowed books. Now we pick each other’s hymns, we take turns being pallbearers, we team up for reception hosting and we lose track of debts. We sing each other’s requiems. This is what we do.
I have heard too many teenagers eulogize their friends. I heard one again yesterday. They sound the way children should: raw, mostly, and bumbling in the way smallness always is before eternity. They are like the smaller crosses in Chacarita, stark and strange, planted in the only corner of earth where brown signifies freshness while green comes with age. I am always in awe of their grace.
Spare me the embrace of the managerial mind. Uniform beauty be damned. This is not Arlington, not a military cemetery honoring the collective bond of service that exacted its price. Each gravestone here is an emphatic marker of a singular death; each one declares the mortal dissolution of a distinct individual. Every grave holds a specific, dappled history, one that ended in its own particular suffering. Polite, homogenized uniformity would not keep faith with the separate griefs solemnized here on a road into town.
I do not understand the concept of separate grief.
One of the things I have always found beautiful about cemeteries is their liveliness. The work gloves left on a grave restoration in progress, the cigarette ashes mixed with the rubble, the fresh flowers, the chatting and the hum. It is so singular in purpose and so governed by tradition that it cannot help its serenity. That is no virtue, really, it is just a fact.
The church militant and triumphant are made so literal here. I have always found the literalness of my faith to be a great relief. I was recently at a child’s baptism, and we spent the ceremony dying to sin. I was yesterday at a child’s funeral, and we spent the ceremony looking to resurrection. The fence is so thin.
For the sake of his sorrowful Passion, the priest is prompting us, and for a moment I do not know whether he means Christ or the child, and for a moment I think it matters. The red egg sits on the gravestone. Christ’s victories and ours are indivisible. It is not that we are repeating a scene, but that we are participating in it.
For the rest of my life, when my soul touches God, I’ll want to shout it in Latin. It’s what we do. I found myself singing in the mountains in Argentina, gloria in excelsis Deo, in the valleys of Peru, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, in the streets of New York, laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, pronouncing it with that medieval Italian accent that became my inheritance through countless accidents of history. And I found myself singing in the chapel of Bishop Ireton, requiem aeternam dona ei, in the little church at Quantico, Domine, in the crowd in Woodbridge, et lux perpetua luceat ei, never quite with the tone I wanted. It will always be like this, gloria, the sun shines so fiercely in this graveyard, requiem, this barbed wire feels like a crown of thorns, gloria, that I am here to know any of these stories, requiem, that I’ll forget tomorrow, gloria, that we are in the plural, requiem, that we are stretched across the sky –
Truly this was the son of God!