Hanging On Without Fingers
Life and death are immutably intertwined. But that relationship is never simple. Just ask any philosopher. Sometimes we can't get enough life. Sometimes we want it all to be over. Yet even if it was over, we certainly desire to be remembered, to somehow matter. For if nothing lasts, nothing adds up to anything, then what's the use of it all? Taking it personally, we give into a simmering wonder that can't be helped - if we are the thing that ultimately doesn't last, then how does that change the now we are so intimate and struggling with?
What we make and think of ourselves while we're here seems so very important while it's happening. But a little voice infers that's a lie. We know for every person currently living on the planet, thirty already have walked the Earth before us and died. In large part, in ways that count, we don't think of them, so why should anyone in the future care if we were here? It's the age-old quandry.
As a stopgap, we have religion and scientific materialism to either assuage our souls or summarily convince us we have none so don't worry about it. But at times we can't help let it gnaw at us. Either way, there's nothing like a visit to a cemetery to put things into perspective. And there's no cemetery quite like the one in Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina for rubbing one's impermanent face in the folly of trying to hang on without fingers.
The first amazement is the fact that the Recoleta Cemetery is a sizable chunk of an upscale section of Argentina's capital. Of course there's a high wall around it. Perhaps it's to keep those on the outside from having to think about their mortality. It's certainly not to keep the residents in. More likely it's to keep vandals and pranksters out. For what we fear sometimes we deface or make fun of. We dress up on Halloween or the Day of the Dead and have some laughs at death's expense. By minimizing we unconsciously hope to rob our fears of their power over us.
We might succeed for awhile and stay in denial about who will have the last laugh. But there is no laughter in the Recoleta Cemetery, at least none that I heard. In fact, it's hard to gauge exactly what kind of reactions are going on with the visitors. There must be two reactions, one held inside and the one that is shown publicly. It all depends on one's frame of mind, the state of one's existential angst.
My first reaction to the place can only be described as impressed in-credulousness. Like, really? Wow. It's easy to say this place is fear of death and runaway ego blended together perfectly and then let run amuck. But one can't help but be left gaping in wonderment. Along with being fascinated. Down every narrow walkway, among the rows of elaborate mausoleums, there are over-the-top examples to be awed by. Without a doubt, concentrated here in one place, are many peoples' vain attempts to glorify themselves and make their lives count as they were taught life better be if one mattered. And oh how we would love it to matter.
By being remembered, by having their profile and resumes encased in marble and granite and be exemplified as something that the future would of course be interested to hang onto, this would be the way they'd somehow cheat death. Or so they hoped. More often than not, regardless how pious or temporarily successful they were in this thing called real life, their projected personas are now set on a public stage with a panoply of religious icons and symbols. The statues and icons call upon the hopes and glory the deceased were taught to expect in an afterlife. The effect is to plead their case. See here how this dearly departed led such a noble and worthwhile life and now it's obvious they deserve equal exultation in whatever place lies beyond the grave.
Beyond the sheer opulence and one-upmanship of various families and the wishes of the deceased vying to win attention as the most impressive display of piety mixed with self-importance, what is also so striking is the vastly varying degrees of upkeep among the plots. Some are all polished with fresh linens and flowers to adorn the inside crypts while others are in sad if not pathetic states of abandonment and decay.
One wonders if the lack of care in places is due to a lack of interest by surviving family members related to the deceased or if there is merely no living family left to keep up the monuments. Surely, no one else will do it. Not unless one managed to touch enough people in a generation, as a celebrity, such as Eva Peron. Celebrity does have a longer shelf life than regular folk but not by much - just ask any kid nowadays about Rudolph Valentino, for example. Either way, the contrast is stark and telling between the struggle of ego to keep itself important, with a life that mattered, and the dismal ruins of similar attempts languishing like scenes from a forgotten horror movie.
It even makes one wonder about the most tightly-knitted families and how time makes things ultimately play out. No matter how close one is to relatives now, just how close is one ever going to be to a great-great-great-grandparent? And time continues to pass. Eventually, usually within a few generations, except for those interested in genealogy charts as a curiosity, any true connection to ancestors is hard to find. Even more so now in post-modern times when the sense of family, even among living relatives, has been so fractionated and de-emphasized by a throw-away consumer culture seeing profit, therefore meaning, in only the new and young.
It's hard to admit, but it's easy to be crass and dismissive of all of the pomp and show of these burial edifices. I was. But that changed. I found, as one spends time walking the seemingly endless rows of packed-in monuments, as one pauses to read the pathos in the inscriptions, something shifts.
As one takes long peeks through the cobwebs and the broken glass, as one watches sunlight project a spray of colors from stained-glass windows upon altars where gingerly-placed photos still rest exactly where they were put with so much heartfelt care, finally there comes an undeniable sense of love that permeates this place. One begins to feel this is not a place about ego or fear or self-aggrandizement. Not at all.
You can feel it. These people loved their lives. They loved other people in their lives. They loved what they did. Moreover, they loved the absolute crazy idea that any of what transpired from cradle to anachronistic monument had a real purpose. All of this shows as they tried to hang onto that improbable idea with such tenacity that they raged against the grim reaper.
It's all about being a tilt-at-windmill reactionary to having loved life, loving it so much that, in the face of death and persistent evidence to the contrary, they erupted in shameless tantrums to do something, anything, to prove what they did and felt had meaning, a meaning not isolated or illusory but transcendent. They felt something, something profound. Perhaps they invented their own meaning, fabricated their purpose. But it doesn't matter. They felt that unlikely invention was real, so real it can't help but be lasting. Or at least it should be. That is the power of feeling, the power of heart.
And all the inscriptions, the flowers, the photos, the finely-tended mausoleum chambers - these are the insanely-hopeful places usually designed, set up, and cared for over time by the living, the ones the deceased left behind. All of this care and tending is about love too. The thought of never being with someone again evokes a rage of love that won't give into such an idea of empty nihilism. Somehow, the relationship has to be preserved, extended into the future. The feeling is so strong, one has to try.
And so the living create a place that seems dedicated to the one no longer present. It preserves for the senses the illusion that the relationship doesn't have to fade. It's a place in part for remembrance, but just as important, it's a place dedicated to the living's crazy insistence that the plausible void will not be accepted. Especially not for the living, not when their time comes to disappear as well. Such a thing can't be accepted. Love says so.
These places may never do for the living what they had hoped, but in their sorrow and hope they had to make the attempt, even if so much in the process of life keeps pounding at them with the punchline - it's all ultimate folly.
Perhaps the meaning is in the intent and not the action. Every where you turn in such a place, behind the hard stone and lofty statues, it's all about love. That's what I saw at the Recoleta Cemetery. Despite how it gets expressed, behind all of its glaring surface absurdity, one feels there's nothing else. Maybe the need for all of us to matter is another way of expressing a need to be loved. And in our desperate search for something or someone to love us, we find the magic of so much we love.
In the end, perhaps that's the overarching lesson of life anyway. Love. It's the only thing we ever start with or take away, the only thing that remains, the only thing that truly motivated us, and the promised thing we keep in the fanciful beyond. It's the solitary thing we truly hang onto, whether we have fingers or not, sense or not, to grasp it.