I’VE BEEN SAVING UP for my grave for a while now. I am not, as you might suspect, preparing to die. Rather the graves I have seen these past few years have been so beautiful that, when I saw them, I knew immediately that I must have one of my own. In New Orleans we live alongside the dead. Their rest fills the city, making pedestrians’ feet move sticky-slow, stretching each vowel, second, and century with immeasurable patience. Any day of the week I can catch a streetcar flashing the destination Cemeteries, a seamless part of the city.
Of course, you cannot buy a new grave and expect from it the same stately splendor of those shade-loving old monuments that fan out in thousands around the city’s edge, their neat rows fading into sprawl and swamp. The ferns sprouting from their corners, the cracks that spiderweb through aging marble—these come with time. With the wind and rain of the hurricane, the humidity of high summer, the rubbing of hands like mine against statue, pillar, name. When I purchase my mausoleum, it’ll be a pile of humble gray stone, adorned only with the inscriptions I’ve hoarded in my phone notes. I’ll be dead when the beauty comes, looking out from the inside.
According to the vinyl banner by the cemetery gate, graves are sold in three sizes: single, double, and infinite corpses. Infinite is the most expensive option, and the most desirable. I’m saving for it so that when my friends come to the point of their dying and realize that they hate where they live, or don’t have any family, or simply don’t care where their bodies wind up, they can move in with me. In my bed at night I stare at the ceiling and count years: Davey, a child, has far more left than I. Scott, taking my hand after a meeting and whispering you better come back soon—far fewer. I keep counting. Luke, John, Caitlyn, Kate. Decades, quarter centuries. I want to keep them all with me. I will. I could. I must.
The counting is quelled in those long afternoons when the shadows of the mausoleums stretch out across winding cobbled avenues, the jostle of a brass band echoing on the breeze while a casket is lowered. Time bustles on in its purposeful way, but I live in a place where the cemeteries are vibrant neighborhoods of their own, where buying a grave can feel like love.
All my friends are so busy, and when they’re dying, I’ll have something to give them. They won’t have to think about where they’re going to sleep. If the resurrection happens, we’ll all be there together, shimmying in our remade crystalline corpses, and if not, well, our bones will mingle even as they fade to dust.
Laura and I go on a date to the Metairie Cemetery, walking under the thick shade of ancient oaks, their lichen-white heads bent low to the ground. We point out inscriptions, bouquets, a well-cut weeping Virgin. Laura loves the way the red-orange windows of the Civil War memorial glow hot and eerie right before sunset, and she visits often, even though the dead here aren’t the victors, or particularly good. Once, I catch her looking at a plot tangled with overgrown wildflowers and know she is thinking of her mother.
We clamber right up the side of one forgotten mausoleum in search of its dedication, gripping its mat of vines for stability, my tennis shoes scrabbling on the sandstone surface. I am a desecrator, but a welcome one. Around the corner: a fabulous proclamation of a grave, staircase running up its side, its roof an empty stage, waiting for some performance or prophecy.
When the sun sinks low and scarlet over the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the gates are padlocked shut, the cemetery man starts his go-cart rounds, and we nestle down in a seldom-visited corner. Backs against the wall behind which Mabel Spampinato, b. 1863, d. 1897, Beloved Wife rests, we gnaw on chicken wings, wiping our greasy hands on the ground, spitting bones into the paper sack at my side. Closing my eyes against the sherbet sky, I lose myself in the press of cool stone, the itch of grass, the disruptive biting ant. The bone still hanging from my hand is slick with fat, burdened with gristle, and suddenly laughter is pouring out of me, unstoppable, as I imagine bird bodies re-forming in a squawk of bone and feather, underfoot at the judgment of the cemetery’s souls.
A house—a real house meant for living people—goes up for sale in the middle of Saint Patrick Cemetery #3, with ironwork railings and a sloped Parisian roof and the dry, still silence that comes from living on an avenue of the dead. Laura says this is the only place she won’t go for me, though it’s a good price and only a few blocks from our rented apartment. We have traveled much farther together. I won’t have any neighbors, she says, earnest as always. I laugh. I think you will. I understand her hesitance, how corpses in concrete can’t provide the same welcome as Miss Mary’s languid wave from across the street at our current place, but I know that, somehow, I would be most myself in this eerie city within the city. It’s as if this house is where I was born, a place where the wind and the pigeons carry the voices of the dead, where the streets are silent and full of votives and roses. Where time holds you like a humid summer.
My mausoleum’s mortar won’t hold forever. When the August storms come and the water rises too high, bones float up out of the ground, get caught in branches and fences, displaced forever. After the yellow sky of the hurricane fades to gray, men tromp through the graveyards, black mud grabbing at their shrimper’s boots, searching for corpses gone astray in the storm. The streets, muddy canals of debris, of live electrical wires and vehicles lost to the current, float with caskets. Ornamental angels block storm drains; a man on the news says he hopes the coffin in his front yard is his brother’s. The stone city of the dead is full of blue-tarped roofs, boundaries blurring with the land of the living. Shingles torn, skeletons rotting in the wet. Each small, awful detail lost in the storm’s torrent, to hatchets in the attic, delirium in 103-degree heat, the never-ending pile of roofs and roads and holes that need mending. By tide or tribunal, our bodies will see daylight again.
All this is to say that when Nate rolled up today with our mail, with a hey, baby and his watermelon-colored hair and my week’s paycheck, I put half of it away for the grave. It was the perfect kind of average day: sun shone dappled and pink through the crepe myrtles, and it was warm enough to rock in the red chairs on the porch but not so hot that you’d work up a sweat doing it. Nothing new had happened, and boredom had subsided into the quiet pleasure of routine. Nate and I spoke for a while, the little stuff of my workday, his weekend. A party, an invitation: there would be ass everywhere. When I watched him drive away, his white truck clattering over the potholes, across the bayou bridge, past Our Lady of the Rosary and then out of sight, that cemetery stillness fell over me. By that I mean I knew I was, in that moment, in the right place, and that I was not going to die before I was supposed to. This day would fold easily into another, Nate rolling by on Sunday in his sparkling Corvette, stopping to slurp a sno-ball and chat, then meandering the sidewalk midweek in his mailman blues, on, on, on.
Some days, when pelicans, immense and elegant, visit the yard, and storms roll swift through the sky, I feel my dead nudging at my shoulder. Look at that. Those days, it is hard to keep from reaching out and offering him, or you, or any sidewalk stranger a place for the end.
Clare Frances is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, where she studies the history of art. Her writing has appeared in Earth & Altar, STM Magazine, Bowdoin Journal of Art, and in the catalog of Down Time: On the Art of Retreat at the Smart Museum of Art.