• Keri Heath

When Cemeteries Sing


I love cemeteries.

I like to walk through them reading aloud the names engraved on the tombstones. I like to feel the consonants rolling around in my mouth and taste the flavor of the lives they once belonged to.

There's an old cemetery on Broadway that fills up every spring with golden blossoms so thick you can smell them driving past in your car. When the flowers are big enough, they pick the tombstones up off the grass and float them through the brick-lined paths like driftwood on the waves. Kotlarich, Leyva, Varnell - the names ebb and bob. It wouldn't be a problem. But ever since they took down the corroded fence, a stray tombstone will get loose from time to time and go scooting down the road toward the beach, leaving the guys who weed eat the cemetery have to chase after it.

Most of the year, the tombstones just sit there, but you can still hear them. On certain days, when there's not too much traffic, you can hear the grass singing all the names, a different tune for every life gone. There are low dirges for those who died too young and calm peaceful melodies for the long lives lived. I don't like walking next to some of the tombstones which echo with discordance. It's too stressful, so I walk away, guilty that I'm trying to forget.

The fact is, the flowers and grass in all cemeteries sing songs. It's hard to catch wind of the tunes, but I still try every time I come across a graveyard.

That's how I once got locked in a cemetery.

While in grad school in Dublin, my roommates and I took a winter trip to Austria and devised a mission to march through the Vienna Central Cemetery until we found Beethoven's grave. Some of Austria's greatest composers sleep there, so the music dripped from the air like honey and saturated the grounds.

We ran up the cemetery path with our arms outstretched in airplanes as the sun dropped behind us. We passed mausoleums with thick, yellowed columns and monuments capped in stone angels. The walls around the cemetery were high and thick and we heard nothing of the early evening traffic.

By the time we got to the center of the massive complex, night had fallen and we couldn't read the names on the graves to tell which one was Beethoven. To this day, I still think if we'd just gotten close enough, we would have heard the music low and brilliant, leading us in the right direction.

But we were hungry, so we strode to the main entrance, more than half a mile from the gate we'd come through. By now, the resident ghosts had started going about their evening business, alighting on the tombs and gliding between the neat rows of headstones. Ghosts usually wait until everyone has left before they come out, so they can't be bothered. When one or two floated past, we could hear them singing their scales, a distant sound like last echo bouncing off a mountain.

At the entrance, the gates were locked. A thick padlock hung around the bars. We'd forgotten about early closure winter hours.

The three of us looked at each other, then headed back to the corner we entered through. They must lock only the main gates, we told ourselves. Of course it was just the main gates.

We trudged through the looming tombstones, lights from the cars and the trolleys on the other side of the cemetery wall casting rays into the night.

It wasn't just the main gates. Chains and another thick padlock barred our exit.

I'm really not sure how long we spent walking back and forth between the two gates trying to figure out a way to get out. At the side gate we remembered a guard tower at the main gate but when we trudged back, there was no one in it. We remembered a sidewalk that pedestrians might walk past by the side gate, but when we waited there, no one came.

Standing there with my scarf wrapped up to my chin, I wondered how miserable it would be to spend the night behind the high walls. That's when the ghosts began to sing. Wordless, their soft voices slid through the frigid night. They sang clear, defined tones like keys of a piano.

Isn't that Moonlight Sonata? one of my roommates said.

Ah, that's why it sounded familiar. I wondered if they made this grand of a show every night, or if they were just putting on a performance because we were here.

We tried to ask the ghosts if there was an unlocked gate somewhere, but they were busy with their recital.

Finally, we wandered back to the main entrance and found a big house inexplicably inside the cemetery. We knocked on doors, waved at windows and a woman answered us. She didn't seem to speak English and we spoke no German, but she beckoned to someone inside, and a man in pajama pants trudged outside.

Even now, I'm not sure if they were groundskeepers, if they were working there late or if we've stumbled into the cemetery's only living residents. The man, who looked a little peeved, led us to a big metal door in the cemetery wall. We'd seen the door before, but worried about tripping an alarm, and visions of the Vienna police swarming had scared us away. It would have been just our luck, we thought. We couldn't risk it.

The man in pajama pants strode to the door, opened it, and pointed to the street beyond. No sirens or swarming police.

Maybe if we'd hung around long enough that night, we would have found Beethoven's grave and seen his ghost sitting there, conducting. Or maybe not. Maybe it was his day off and he didn't want to be found anyway.

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