by Brian Thomas
This is way too strange for an Easter Sunday: to be standing on the side of a crushed coral and asphalt highway, four thousand-plus miles from home, waiting for a blue bus with the word “Cementerio” on its side. The equatorial sun begins to beat into my head the notion that all the smart Americans in Venezuela are inside by now, or a least on the beach with a sixer of Polar beers.
When the bus pulls up, I nearly change my mind. It’s way too crowded, a virtual parody of Third World mass transit, minus the requisite cages of chickens on the roof and the odd pig or two roaming the aisle. The bus is loaded with holiday travelers on their way into Caracas. It has gotta be named for the route past the cemetery, because none of my fellow travelers look like they’re planning to stop off with me. Call it a hunch, but inflatable sharks and picnic baskets probably aren’t part of any South American memorial customs.
It’s a sweaty fifteen-minute ride along San Sucre highway to the broken gates of my destination, where the driver cheerfully calls out, “Hotel Resurrección!” Señor Gringo, the only one getting off at this stop, receives more than a few curious looks from the other riders. Well, I wanted to see the ‘cementerio’ and here it is.
I’ve been to a lot of graveyards in this life, all over my country, which is to say the U. S. of A. That hallowed ground always had a familiar feeling to it, whether it was a tiny Midwestern graveyard with lots of breathing space between the orderly rows of old Sears & Roebuck catalogue headstones or a huge featureless retail ‘memorial park’ whose rolling hills were paved with flat bronze markers. Clean, quiet, serene. “Ain’t nobody here but us dead folks.”
This is as different as it can be.
On the cemetery wall hangs a stained whitewashed square, with the word “Res re cion.” Faded block letters have peeled away until the u and the second r and c are only faint outlines. One of the gates leans out and down at a severe angle, its hinges snapped off by a combination of rust and weight. Ten feet inside the gates, the difference is completely palpable. To say that this place has ‘atmosphere’ would be an understatement, though it’s not something that I can readily pin down. The closest thing I’ve got to a reference point for what I’m looking at is the cemeteries of New Orleans, with the graves and tombs all aboveground.
Hotel Resurrección is a large, irregularly walled space, a hundred yards deep and maybe a hundred wide. Damn near every square foot is taken up by every form of tomb, plot, niche, and hole imaginable. There’s something going on here, almost a democracy of the dead. Older plots with their bleached, time-eroded classic white monuments, so common in the average churchyard, stand beside modern tombs wrapped in polished black sheet granite with chromed accessories. Frequently a simple wooden cross sprouts from the narrow space between the two. Secure in their locked, bougainvillea-shrouded wrought metal enclosures (so much like the iron mortsafes of the 19th century), the remains of departed local aristos now do eternal time-share on the same ground with the bones of people they might not have considered fit to shine their shoes.
Still, this place has no real class lines, like many graveyards do. Some of the ornate, expensive-looking graves are among the most neglected. The faces of their monuments are scratched and dirty. In places, the raised letters that make up the epitaphs are missing. The fittings are tarnished and the flower holders in disrepair. The simplest square of inscribed limestone in the farthest corner might be scrubbed gleaming white with fresh blooms, while the expensive graves have only twisted dead stems.
Oddly, there are virtually no plastic flowers. I find plenty of other things on graves, things with stories known only to those who left them behind. Small plastic toys on a child’s grave, that’s self-evident. But the silk shirt draped over a cross-shaped marker? That’s got to have a story behind it. Also, the tin plates and little airline-sized rum bottles I can understand, but why a cheap, Cracker Jack-prize compass? The most telling mementos are the photographs, locked into small oval frames on many of the stones, some faded, others painfully clear. Mostly the pictures show children dressed for Communion or octogenarians in oversized dark clothes, childlike in their own way.
When death comes for the young adult, it stands out here. That is especially true at the grave of a Venezuelan air cadet, prominent in a vault of delicately patterned white metal. The polished headstone bears not only a photo of the young man in uniform, but also a sleek chrome jet, its nose turned downward in a way that calls to mind the sort of terminal dive that would take a young pilot’s life. Of all the graves here in Resurrección, his is the best maintained, with fresh flowers and a new white candle in the votive lamp. An unfilled space waits beside him — for the father and brothers mentioned in the inscription? Perhaps for the wife or mother? Regardless, this seems more of a shrine than anywhere else in Hotel Resurrección.
Sharing appears to be the name of the game here. Some markers indicate up to five inhabitants in a single grave. A look down into an open one reveals a narrow hole some ten feet deep. Conveniently illuminated by a shaft of the noonday sun, which lurks blisteringly overhead, I see a brick-covered depression beneath a layer of brackish water. There’s one name on the marker already, with space for several more. When the rest of the family is good and ready, they’ll be stacked into place, one atop the other. Having seen the local tenements (without trying to be poignant or anything), part of my brain can’t help but notice that folks often wind up in death just like they were in life: crammed on top of each other.
Some few wind up alone and out of place, like the narrow plot against the cemetery’s rear wall. It doesn’t even look like a grave at first glance, more like a water tap — just a steel pipe, painted green, with a simple metal plate riveted to it. Like a paupers’ field marker: name only, no date, no epitaph other than the word ‘American.’ The grave was fairly recently made; the ground is still slightly mounded, but weeds are already taking hold. Who was this? What brought them so far from home? More to the point, who left them behind? Does anyone back in the States know what happened? I look the area over carefully, but whatever clues might have once been here are gone. I’ll probably never forget this grave. To this day, when I hear about loneliness, about being left behind, I think of that American.
The variety of Resurrección doesn’t extend merely to the class and style of its graves. The plants growing from the ground are flourishing — which is strange, since I see no water taps. Vegetation of every type, both living and dead, fills all the open spaces.
Narrow patio-stone walkways meander everywhere and nowhere, sometimes terminating in dead ends choked with heaps of dried flowers and dead weeds. Other walkways stop at piles of ashes. Trash and old floral arrangements have been burned as recently as Good Friday, to judge from the smell that rises every time the ocean breeze sweeps through the narrow channels between the graves. The breeze raises swirls of sweet ash-smelling dust and disturbs the flies that seem to be everywhere. More than flies, insects of every size and variety buzz around me.
Families of sleek feral cats live inside the cemetery walls, watching from the shadowed greenery. They slip through the bars of crypts to sprawl in choice sunbeams or to nap in cool granite niches. When I try to pet one, the cat vanishes into a mass of flowers covering a new grave, an aboveground crypt painted turquoise.
Though the flowers are only a few days old, there’s no name or date applied to the grave yet. One of the bouquets has a small card with the single word “Marie.” Then it dawns on me: the tang to the air isn’t just the flowers. On closer examination, ants run up and down the sides of the grave, streaming in and out of the seams at all four corners. They disappear into the fine beach-like sand between the pathway stones. At that moment, the realization goes beyond revulsion, shock, or even mild surprise. In fact, my overall feeling is how natural this seems.
That’s when it hits me, the thing that was so hard to pin down about this place. Hotel Resurrección vibrates with a life of its own, its air charged with sounds and smells. There’s very little that’s actually dead here. The cats and the insects are very much alive. Even the mementos on the graves are alive, at least in the memories of the living. The dead are actively in the process of returning to the earth. Their partially filled family plots wait quietly for the reunions they’ll ultimately host (which, like most family reunions, are patently unavoidable). The plants are maintained by soil that has, by nature of its location, become very fertile. Those flowers that were already cut, therefore already dying when placed on the graves of those they were brought to honor, decay and ultimately return to the earth.
For the first time, I truly appreciate the old passage, “Ashes to ashes…” In this corner of the world, where preservation is more the exception than the rule, no one, no thing, ever stays for long. When the bus driver called this place “Hotel Resurrección,” I thought he was just being clever. Having spent some time here, I’d say he was closer to the truth than he suspected.
This essay appeared in the original Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries.
Brian Thomas served a decade-long stint as a researcher at 20th Century Fox, specializing in religion, arcana, death, and creative violence. He contributed to films as diverse as Moulin Rouge, From Hell, and Master and Commander, and projects such as The X-Files, Millennium, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel.
Brian’s writing has appeared in the books Lend the Eye a Terrible Aspect and Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries. In the pages of Morbid Curiosity magazine, he buried a family cat, locked himself into a cell in Auschwitz, visited the Black Virgin in Poland, worked with a human skeleton he didn’t know was real, slept in a coffin, and bought a shrunken head.
He is the co-author, with Loren Rhoads, of As Above, So Below.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you. The submissions guidelines are here.