Mostly when I visit a cemetery, I can separate what it represents from the beauty and peace of the place. I don’t see cemeteries as depressing, unless they have been vandalized.
Last week, though, I struggled. I’ve wanted for a while to write about the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco, but even though it’s one of the loveliest places in the city, I felt such anger and sadness that I had trouble finding words to express them.
Twenty years ago last month, my friend Blair died of AIDS. The speed of his illness was breakneck and terrifying. I was honored to stay at his house during the last week of his life, administering morphine every 20 minutes around the clock with a handful of his friends and his husband Jeff, my best friend.
Blair was 28 when he died.
He didn’t want a monument. Jeff scattered some of Blair’s ashes in their backyard. He had some of them mixed into tattoo ink and tattooed them into his skin. Several friends ate some of them. In the end, some of us took the remainder and tried to dump them into San Francisco Bay. The wind caught them, of course, and blew them back at us.
The worst of the plague was over in the US by the time Blair died. New drugs — and new drug cocktails — turned HIV from a death sentence to a manageable if chronic health problem. Twenty years later, every gay friend I have is HIV positive, but no one else has died yet.
My life has been touched lightly by AIDS, but even so, it was catastrophically changed.
In July, I went to the AIDS Grove one sunny morning, looking for peace and researching a potential Cemetery of the Week. To my horror, a personal trainer had three women crab-walking across a plaza in the western end of the grove.
I’m not narrow-minded about cemeteries. I’m fine with people biking through them, picnicking, playing frisbee, jogging, walking their dogs. I would have said I was fine with whatever, as long as people were respectful and picked up after themselves. I discovered I was not okay with a gang of women in spandex doing leg lifts.
If they had been big beefy guys, would I have been so upset? Probably not. I think the dead would have appreciated the eye candy.
I wanted to march over to the trainer and scream at her. Urns are buried in the Grove. Ashes have been scattered there. Survivors still come to commune with their lost ones. The rocks all around are marked with names and epitaphs. This is hallowed ground. I was too disgusted and disappointed in humanity to speak.
Half a million people have died of AIDS worldwide. 8000 people continue to die each day of the disease. Fewer of those are in America now, but the disease is still killing those around us. One of my friends has AIDS now. By the time he got tested, it was too late for the disease to be prevented. He may yet live a long time, but he may never be healthy.
In the face of AIDS, I don’t know what to do with my anger and grief. I feel the loss of each name in the Grove as a slice of my heart. How can I communicate that to people who weren’t in San Francisco in the 80s and 90s, who don’t remember the gaunt young men with their canes, the mile-long candlelit marches?
I need the Grove to be a place of beauty and healing, so I can find peace for my memories and my fury.
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